Friday, July 22, 2011

Sun Valley grants Cox 5-month extension

Mayor appoints committee to work with cable provider


By REBECCA MEANY
Express Staff Writer

Some Sun Valley residents and city officials are demanding better customer service from cable and Internet provider Cox Communications. Photo by David N. Seelig

Cox Communications, which provides cable and Internet services to cities in the Wood River Valley, will have another five months to convince Sun Valley residents and city officials that its long-term franchise agreement should be renewed.

The Sun Valley City Council held a public hearing Wednesday on the proposed agreement, which expired last week.

The agreement allows the company access to the city's right of way in exchange for its providing cable services to the city. A 3 percent franchise fee is part of that arrangement. The city receives about $40,000 a year from those fees.

Some residents and city officials have vehemently complained about Cox's technical quality and customer service, as well as the company's passing the franchise fee on to subscribers.

Guy Cherp, Cox's vice president of operations for Sun Valley, made the company's case for a six-month extension, to Jan. 14; the council gave him five months so the issue could be worked out before the end of the year.

"Yes, it is true that we've experienced some challenges," Cherp said. "Some of those have been within our control and some of those have been out of our control."

The valley's remote location, and the way broadcast signals make their way from Boise through the Magic Valley to the top of Bald Mountain, and back down to homes, can be problematic.

"(It's) challenging and is subject to environmentals," Cherp said.

Some customers took the opportunity to air pent-up grievances.

"I don't know anybody that doesn't think that the service is disastrous," said Peggy Tierney. "I hope you can fix it."

Kevin Laird said the company doesn't seem to care about quality.

"If there were other options, I'm sure people in the city would explore them," he said. "The thing that upsets me ... the Channel 7 issue has been going on for years and years and years, and it's always somebody else's problem. It's poor service. There's got to be some technology that can provide better service."

Some residents said the upgrade to a digital system might not have been ready for prime time. Councilman Bob Youngman agreed.

"In my world, an upgrade includes reliability," he said. "So to me this has been a downgrade. Unless you have some weird definition of upgrade, this is not one. I think it's a particularly upsetting thing for the community to have this forced upon us as an experimental, an almost experimental, system."

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Youngman, who has worked as a consultant for Motorola, scolded the company about reliability, technical quality, customer service, the unsightliness and quality of the converter box and the "cheesy" remote.

"There are all these elements that are just not consistent with the lifestyle the people in this city live," he said.

Councilman Nils Ribi read into the record nearly a dozen comments emailed to him about the issue. Complaints centered on signal quality.

Cox was not without supporters, however. Several people attended the hearing to speak favorably about their experiences with the company and urged the city to continue its relationship with the provider.

"I think they're trying to do the right thing," said resident Jim Knight. "I believe this all can be worked out. Let's work with Cox in a collaborative fashion."

Elkhorn resident Harry Griffith supported a long-term agreement with Cox.

"I have no ongoing quality problems," he said. "I do have periodic problems with the Internet, but they are always resolved through a service call."

Sun Valley's remote mountain location was a persuasive argument for Jim Bronson.

"I think any mountain community probably has some of the same challenges that we have here with Cox," he said.

He cautioned that without Cox, no other company might want to provide cable service, leaving residents only with satellite television.

Cox company officials say canceling the franchise agreement with Sun Valley is unlikely. According to information provided to the Idaho Mountain Express by Gail Graeve, Cox's director of public affairs, federal law requires the city to go through an extensive administrative process before it has the ability to deny a renewal request.

Cox also defended its policy to pass the franchise fee on to customers, saying federal law allows cable companies to do so.

Mayor Wayne Willich formed a committee to work through problems and help craft a long-term agreement. Laird and Councilmen Youngman and Ribi were appointed. Another community member also may be named.

"I think we have a lot of work to do here with this committee ... to let Cox know we're not happy," Youngman said. "It needs to be fixed in some way, shape or form. I have great expectations."

Rebecca Meany: rmeany@mtexpress.com




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