PEG o’ My Heart

Last year, which is to say 11 days ago, Brick described the local cable com­pany as reneg­ing on its agree­ment with area gov­ern­ments by mov­ing the local access chan­nels from its cheap­est tiers, ana­log cable, to the more costly dig­i­tal ones. This post­ing pro­voked inter­est among Face­book friends. They gave con­flict­ing sto­ries, hence some infor­mal jour­nal­ism now. (Note to any who think I should save myself for work: I did research and inter­views as a Cox Com­mu­ni­ca­tions cus­tomer, not a newsman.)

I phoned the num­ber on Cox’s let­ter about the access chan­nel move, (866) 924‑6269, and got Bret (no last name given) at its Kansas-Arkansas call cen­ter, in Wichita. Later, Jan. 6, I went to the company’s Fayet­teville office where Franky answered my ques­tions. Both were friendly and patient, and apol­o­gized that Cox changed terms and poli­cies fairly often. For exam­ple, I brought its Jan. 4 chan­nel list, and Franky noticed that the National Geo­graphic chan­nel, which at the end of Decem­ber was moved to ana­log, days later was back on low digital.

I told Bret on the phone I wanted the access chan­nels and should not pay extra for this pub­lic ser­vice. He said Cox has a ready solu­tion. The impli­ca­tion was that cable view­ers must make the first move.

A dig­i­tal con­verter box will be pro­vided free for two years, pro­vid­ing tun­ing to the PEG (Pub­lic, Edu­ca­tional and Gov­ern­ment) chan­nels, plus a few oth­ers. The $10 one-time acti­va­tion fee and monthly $5.25 con­verter box rental are waived for those two years. The con­verter unit comes with a box con­tain­ing a remote con­trol and all needed cables for older and newer TVs, Bret said.

If the cus­tomer prefers to not pick them up at the store, Cox will ship these free by FedEx. The Buy-Through Plan sub­scriber should be able to set up the cables, Bret said, but if not, Cox will send a tech­ni­cian — $33.95 for the ser­vice visit.

A later phone call to tech­ni­cal sup­port revealed this inter­me­di­ate tier is the “Buy-Through Plan,” a mod­i­fied ver­sion of the low­est dig­i­tal tier, Advanced TV Pre­ferred. The bot­tom, ana­log tier is TV Starter ($20 for 20 chan­nels), then one step up is what My Beloved and I have, TV Essen­tial, about $50 before tax ($49.99 but I am round­ing), with some 60 channels.

Advanced TV Pre­ferred has a listed monthly fee of $71 before tax and pro­vides “more than 130 chan­nels,” for which a con­verter box is needed at $5.25 a month rent, or $7.25 for a con­verter that can process the new high-definition sig­nal or a con­verter that’s also a dig­i­tal video recorder. HD requires a sep­a­rate HDMI cable one can buy any­where. DVR ser­vice also car­ries a $10 monthly fee. DVR had been called by its pop­u­lar brand Tivo and is an upgrade of the ol’ VCR.

The Buy-Through Plan con­tin­ues the $50 plus tax ($57.31 on my bill) ana­log rate. It has those 60 ana­log chan­nels, plus 10 PEG chan­nels and the six-channel “Faith and Val­ues Pak” of Chris­t­ian pro­gram­ming. The PEG series includes CAT com­mu­nity TV, the Jones Cen­ter for Fam­i­lies chan­nel, local school and city gov­ern­ment sta­tions, and oddly the Jew­elry TV shop­ping channel.

Hours after leav­ing the the Cox store with the con­verter unit and acces­sories box, I real­ized that out­side of a signed paper-tape receipt of the unit and cable pack, I was given noth­ing spe­cific in writ­ing. I hope I don’t have to regret that mistake.

Expe­ri­enced at set­ting up elec­tronic gear, I only made one tech call, to learn I needed to set both my TV and my VCR to Chan­nel 3. The sup­port fel­low (in Wichita) said I was his first Buy-Through ques­tion. In answer­ing his ques­tions we both learned I was given an older dig­i­tal con­verter box and that sev­eral key but­tons on the new Cox remote con­trol — Menu, Guide etc. — won’t work. The box does not have a socket for the HDMI cable needed for a flat-screen TV, which MB and I plan to buy soon.

Crouch­ing behind the TV replug­ging dusty coax and RCA cables I toyed with going ahead with full dig­i­tal, visions of watch­ing Sun­dance and IFC, enticed by an online pro­mo­tion: the $71 price of Advance TV Pre­ferred is $55 a month for a year.

Cox e-mailed me the day after I set up Pre­ferred to can­cel my order.

I phoned Wichita and was told I had to pay $71, because I already have the Buy-Through Plan. I asked for a man­ager (Tip: Men­tion how attrac­tive satel­lite Dish TV now looks). Jen­nifer the super­vi­sor agreed the sale applied to me, and I just need to exchange the new-old dig­i­tal box for the HD one.

I will remem­ber to ask for some­thing in writ­ing that states my rate is $55. I’m going ahead and pub­lish­ing this now, as some­thing else may go whacky before I can watch National Geo­graphic, and MB gets Oprah’s new OWN channel.

* * * is arranged like a maze, and print-outs of pages are messed up. Cox is an Inter­net ser­vice provider. If it can’t main­tain a nav­i­ga­ble web­site, is its broad­band reliable?

To arrange for ser­vice that the cable viewer for years got by order­ing basic or extended now requires the time-consuming, delib­er­ately mis­lead­ing, nickel-and-diming of choos­ing a cell-phone ser­vice, buy­ing a car and reserv­ing flights.

Two of the Face­book friends upset about the PEG chan­nels, a cou­ple, said my account is dif­fer­ent from theirs and of two peo­ple they know. None in short was offered the Buy-Through Plan. They want to know what hap­pens after two years.

The PEG chan­nels are not required by law or FCC pol­icy. They’re part of the bid, nego­ti­ated in the fran­chise agree­ment between the win­ning cable com­pany and local government.

The PEG chan­nels for me is a lesser issue. The con­cern is why offi­cials have not responded to the change in ser­vice. It’s also hard to under­stand why few res­i­dents seem to have com­plained to City Hall or the news media or blogged about it. In util­ity con­tracts a gov­ern­ment acts as the advo­cate of res­i­dents and is respon­si­ble for enforc­ing terms. Fayet­teville has long been known statewide as feisty, but has it become resigned to los­ing perks?

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