Nov. 25--Tom Volz moved to St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood this year and contacted his cable provider, Comcast, for a senior discount. He was taken aback when he received a letter in the mail indicating he would have to prove that his annual income is less than $17,000.
"My understanding is that through the contract with the city, seniors can apply and receive (the discount regardless of) income or bundled services," Volz said shortly after his exchange with Comcast in August.
He's at least half right.
With Comcast and CenturyLink poised to compete for cable subscribers in St. Paul, many senior residents are looking for clarity as to what kinds of discounts they might be eligible for.
The answers aren't quite as straightforward as they may appear.
The city's 10-year franchise agreement with Comcast guarantees a 10 percent cable discount to those 65 and older, regardless of income. The same discount applies to the disabled or low-income residents. Together, those three groups represent well over one-fourth of St. Paul households.
Despite the contract language, Comcast has refused to provide the 10 percent discount on top of other promotions, such as the savings many customers already enjoy as a result of bundling Comcast cable, Internet and phone services. Seniors get no additional advantage.
Comcast's latest franchise agreement got the St. Paul City Council's approval in March, but the senior discount has been in effect for the past 15 years.
The company notes that the 10 percent senior discount applies only to the cable portion of a customer's bill. Comcast has maintained that it is under no legal obligation to combine discounts or promotions, and that bundled services provide a steeper discount anyway.
After reviewing the contract language, city attorneys are now advising the city's Department of Technology and Communications to accept Comcast's interpretation of the franchise agreement and drop any ongoing objections. That's because the franchise agreement is silent on the question of combined savings.
"The franchise does not address a bundling of services discount, nor other promotional discounts, which in many cases provide a deeper discount than the senior discount would," said Mike Reardon, St. Paul's cable communications officer, in a Nov. 13 email to a subscriber.
"Comcast applies the discount to customers who are not receiving any other discount/promotional offer," Reardon said.
Emmett Coleman, Comcast's vice president of external affairs for the Twin Cities area, said St. Paul customers can call 651-222-3333 to request a discount form. The discount is available only to residents of the Capital City, and they'll be asked to include a copy of their driver's license or state ID with their application.
"We continue to offer this discount to all eligible residents," Coleman said in an email.
The city's new cable franchise agreement with CenturyLink, which was approved by the council Nov. 12, has similar provisions. Like the Comcast contract, the agreement spells out cable discounts of 10 percent off monthly bills for seniors, low-income residents and the disabled.
However, as an alternative, the company can offer low-income residents $5 off their monthly cable bills if they can prove they are enrolled in a public assistance program such as Medicaid, food support or federal housing assistance.
"CenturyLink has to do one of those provisions," said Tarek Tomes, the city's chief information officer. "It doesn't have to do both."
CenturyLink plans to roll out Prism TV, a cable-like television service, over the coming weeks, and details about how it will structure its discounts will be announced in tandem.
"This gives us a lot of flexibility," said Blois Olson, a spokesman for CenturyLink. "We will make sure that discounts are available per the contract. CenturyLink has options to either provide the senior discount or the low-income discount. ... The low-income piece is new."
The CenturyLink contract states that the $5 discount "shall apply over and above any applicable discounts, including discounts applicable for bundled services."
And if CenturyLink doesn't offer a senior discount, the franchise agreement requires the company to provide free 1-gigabye broadband service to two senior centers in St. Paul, or to one senior center and a community center, as well as two annual trainings on how to use the Internet.
SENIORS CRY FOUL
The Pioneer Press highlighted Comcast's longstanding senior discount program in July, and the reaction from readers was intense.
Customers called the senior discount illusory. Some seniors said Comcast customer service representatives told them that no such discount exists or that it was offered only out of state.
Others were directed to write a letter to a Comcast office in Beaverton, Ore., but advised they would receive no more than $1 off their monthly bills. Several said they spent long periods on hold, spoke with multiple customer-service representatives and received conflicting information.
Some seniors, like Volz, were able to provide evidence that they had received application forms that asked them to prove they fell into multiple categories -- such as "age 65 or over" and "low-income" -- to prove they qualify for discounts.
Comcast's franchise agreement with St. Paul indicates that a resident must fit one category or another, and not two or more to qualify for 10 percent off their monthly cable bill.
In interviews, Comcast officials have been apologetic and promised to improve training. This week, the company announced it would boost its St. Paul workforce by 400 employees, most of them customer service representatives and supervisors, bringing the total in St. Paul to more than 1,000 workers.
Nationally, the company plans to add 5,500 employees over the next three years and devote $300 million toward customer service tools and technology.
But Comcast has held firm to its contention that the senior, disabled and low-income discounts cannot be added on top of an existing promotion. Many, if not most, Comcast customers receive bundled services such as cable, Internet and phone.
"If the bundled rate offered by Comcast results in a 10 percent or greater discount on basic cable service, then Comcast will be in compliance with the terms of the franchise," Tomes said.
Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.
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