15 Years Into Agreement To Provide St. Paul’s Elderly A Cable Discount, Comcast Reps Have Never Heard Of It

(Consumerist)

(Consumerist)

The Minnesota city of St. Paul sits, like its twin Minneapolis, squarely in Comcast territory, with nary a competitor in sight. But the franchise agreements that create local monopolies can also be used to residents’ benefit: as part of the contract that lets them be the exclusive cable company in town, Comcast offers low-income and elderly St. Paul residents a discount off their cable bills. Great, right? Well, it would be… if anyone in town could actually sign up for it.

Comcast and St. Paul recently came to terms on a contract extending their franchise agreement for another 10 years, through 2025. As part of that agreement, the Twin Cities Pioneer Press reported, a discount offer Comcast must provide for certain customers would also be extended.

The agreement (PDF) between the city and the business includes a discount program that mandates a 10% discount on cable TV service be available to any resident who is a senior citzen, disabled, or economically disadvantaged. The discount has been in place for 15 years already.

And that was news to a huge number of Pioneer Press readers, who had never heard of the discount at all.

As the Pioneer Press points out: in a city where 24% of the population lives in poverty and 9% of the population are senior citizens, you would expect to see, let’s say, roughly a quarter of the city getting discounted rates, even if those two populations overlapped entirely.

Of course, they go on, not everyone subscribes to cable. That’s fair. But still, they estimate, the discount could be applied to as many as 72,000 residents in over 26,600 households. And although the 10-year extension to the franchise agreement is new, the discount has been part of that agreement for the last 15 years as well. So Comcast clearly must have doled out quite a lot of discounts over the past decade and a half, right?

Well, no.

When the Pioneer Press ran an article about the discount, they became inundated with responses from readers saying that not only were they not getting discounts from Comcast, but that when they called to have them applied — because it’s not automatic, subscribers do have to ask — Comcast reps were downright hostile.

“You can’t get the discount from them. The last time I tried I was told I was trying to get a ‘free handout.’ They’re rude and they’re crude. Isn’t there something that can be done to get these people out of our city?” one resident told the paper.

Another said: “I called Comcast today and the first agent I spoke with was unaware of this discount and tried to get an answer from one of their ‘specialist.’ They were also unaware of this discount, so I asked to speak with a supervisor who also did not know about the discount. After informing them that it was in the paper yesterday and giving them the info necessary to look it up, they asked if I had any further information.”

Yet another: “I spent an hour on the phone with them, and they don’t know anything about it. They said it’s only good in California and Puerto Rico, or something to that effect.”

Another: “The guy put me on hold for a while, and then he gave me another number, and then he said you have to send a letter to Beaverton, Ore., and you get $1.”

Still another: “Discounts for seniors and the disabled? I think I fall under two of those categories as a disabled veteran. … I called the number and spoke to a customer service rep that actually is in Mexico. She had no knowledge of that at all.”

And one more: “The guy said, ‘Well, the newspaper is not correct, take it up with them.'”

The Pioneer Press took the consumers’ tales of woe — many more than we’ve quoted — to Comcast.

A representative for Comcast told the Pioneer Press that the company apologized for the inconvenience, and promised that representatives would be retrained. “We have provided the senior citizen discount to qualified St. Paul customers for more than 15 years, and will continue to honor that commitment,” he said, adding, “We are communicating with all customer care representatives to make certain they are aware of the discount and the qualification process for St. Paul customers.”

Comcast also declined to provide the Pioneer Press with the number of customers that have received the discount — even though as part of the franchise agreement, Comcast is required to provide both an annual estimate (in their first quarterly report of the year) of the number of eligible subscribers receiving the discount and also the amount of those discounts.

Broadband competition (or specifically, its absence) in the Twin Cities.

Broadband competition (or specifically, its absence) in the Twin Cities.

Like most other consumers, residents of St. Paul (and its sibling) can’t exactly pick up and go elsewhere.

Competition is nonexistent, and so St. Paul residents are stuck with Comcast or bust. That means there’s not much incentive for the cable giant to go around trumpeting those discounts, because customers can hardly shop around or price-match elsewhere.

The city, however, can push back. Tarek Tomes, St. Paul’s chief information officer, told the Pioneer press that “Comcast has been informed numerous times over the years to educate their customer reps about St. Paul’s senior discount,” and added, “The city is more than glad to assist any subscriber who has trouble receiving it.”

Comcast gives St. Paul seniors runaround on cable discount [Twin Cities Pioneer Press]
St. Paul’s seniors to Comcast: Where’s the beefy discount? [Twin Cities Pioneer Press]