Complaining about Mediacom, Columbia's monopoly cable provider, has become almost as popular as griping about government.
There's the same slump-shouldered resignation to poor service, the same indignation on opening a bill, the same frustration with bureaucrats — in Mediacom's case, private customer service reps who've become so hard to reach the company doesn't even bother with automated numerical choices and often answers its phones with "all lines are busy."
The latest indignity — restriction of Columbia's city, public school and CAT-TV public access channels, once available to all subscribers, now available only to subscribers with so-called converter boxes — makes 2010 a good year for Missouri General Assembly members Mary Still, Stephen Webber, Chris Kelly and Kurt Schaefer to take action.
Where past years found City Council members negotiating Mediacom's public utility-like regulated monopoly, Missouri state legislators are now calling the shots through the Public Service Commission.
Old Southwest, same old complaints
Discussants on Columbia's Old Southwest online neighborhood listserv blasted Mediacom’s Internet, cable and telephone service last August for outages and miscommunications.
"I have had Internet interruptions for the past three weeks," wrote Mary A. "Every time I called Mediacom, the automated system said there were problems in the area. There weren’t." Instead, service technicians discovered a loose cable outside her house and told her the automated message was out of date.
After four days without service and frustration with customer service representatives blaming the outage on an upgrade, Tim K. flagged a Mediacom technician driving through his neighborhood. The technician found a different culprit — a faulty cable near Tim's house. A second problem had customer service reps dispatching technicians "who couldn't find anything wrong," Tim said. "Instead, something had been changed in my account that affected my phone service."
Similar stories flooded in.
"I have been having quite a few problems with my Mediacom Internet connection, and it's very frustrating," Mike K. wrote.
"We've had a lot of trouble with Mediacom Internet and cable TV on South Garth," said Hsiao-Mei. "I am seriously looking at other alternatives."
Finally, Neighborhood Association President Hank Ottinger told the group his phone service "has been sketchy at best. Tried calling it in, but received the usual blather about outages in the area."
Loss of control
These stories aren't surprising. On their way into the arms of state regulators, Mediacom fought a City of Columbia lawsuit to recover underpaid franchise and public access fees and ultimately settled in November 2008 for $200,000.
But the cable provider had the last laugh. In April 2009, Mediacom exiled Columbia's city government, school district and public access channels — the settlement's main beneficiaries — to channels 80, 81 and 85, respectively, far up the dial and away from Basic to Digital Broadcast subscribers.
The company also dropped local PBS favorite KETC St. Louis. Contacted "by a number of people upset about the decision," Jerry Wade (right), 4th Ward Columbia City Council member and mayoral candidate, blamed "loss of local control" via new state laws "denying cities from having any say about communication companies so that corporations do not have to deal with individual communities."
Now, the Missouri State Public Service Commission has control, which leaves Columbia poorly positioned as the indignities continue.
Rocco's rocky times
Google "Mediacom," and two things stand out: thousands of nationwide complaints, often under the heading "Mediacom sucks," and Mediacom Founder/CEO Rocco Commisso, a first generation Italian immigrant who lives in a modern New Jersey castle.
Commisso (left) recently fought — and lost — a nasty anti-trust suit Mediacom filed in 2006 against Sinclair Broadcasting, the nation's largest television station owner. Mediacom pays to carry Sinclair shows, but after balking at the price, the cable provider lost the stations and the lawsuit. The two sides reached a temporary retransmission agreement, but on its expiration this December, Sinclair announced it would yank its shows again, which threatened Iowa-based viewers of the Orange Bowl and Alabama-based BCS national championship viewers.
Alabama and Iowa teams played in both games, and fans were outraged. On New Year's Day, former Federal Communications Commission member Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa law professor and media critic, told the Iowa Gazette he sees "no good guys" in the Mediacom-Sinclair dispute. "There are no white hats anymore," Johnson said. "You have two corporate monoliths that are going after each other like two dinosaurs from ages past."
Two Tyrannosaurs, stomping customers and eating their weight in rising prices. Oh, for the halcyon broadcast days of Paul Pepper, where viewers were friends — and dinosaurs were still extinct.
-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Business Times