Time Warner Cable Portland Maine customers service

Time Warner Cable’s reputation tarnished

David Hedrick recently got a big price break on his Time Warner Cable bill.

But rather than being pleased, he’s upset. And he’s not the only one.

Despite growing competition from Internet streaming services, satellite TV, tablets and other technology, Time Warner gets failing grades from many customers and on customer service rating reports. The company has consistently scored lower than competitors in several recent national consumer surveys.

While Time Warner is not technically a monopoly, its actions in Maine and nationally over some two decades make customers, consumer advocates and industry experts say the communications giant behaves like one. If you want cable television in most Maine markets, you have no choice but to use Time Warner.

After years of watching his rates go up, and recently being told he has to pay $5.99 a month for an Internet modem he had been using for free for about 14 years, Hedrick finally decided to go to a Time Warner office and complain.

When he couldn’t get a clear answer on some of the charges on his bill, Hedrick threatened to switch to a satellite TV service. The Time Warner representative responded by offering Hedrick about $35 off his monthly bill for one year – $94.11 monthly, as opposed to $129.

He took it, but he doesn’t like the idea behind it.

“I have a concern that this essentially unregulated monopoly, which so many of us depend on as much or more than we do electricity, water or telephone service, can charge whatever it can get away with, and on what appears to be a sliding scale based on customer discontent, ” said Hedrick, 71, of Waterville, a retired Army officer and former hospital administrator.

Lots of other customers seem to agree with Hedrick. Time Warner came in 15th among 17 pay-TV services in a Consumer Reports survey in May, and ranked last or second to last for TV, phone and Internet services in the American Customer Service Index, or ACSI, that same month.

The latter survey ranked the nation’s largest communications companies – eight for TV and seven for phone and Internet. For the last seven years, Time Warner been rated in the bottom half of cable TV companies ranked in the ACSI.

The mention of Time Warner on “The Daily Show” last week came in a segment on the government shutdown by correspondent John Oliver.

“Congress already has a 90 percent incumbency rate that goes along with a 10 percent approval rating. The only previous instance of that level of disapproval combined with that level of market-retention is Time Warner Cable, ” Oliver said. This prompted Stewart to counter, “If I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying that Congress is the Time Warner Cable of democracy.”

With almost 400, 000 customers in Maine and New Hampshire, Time Warner is the largest combined cable TV, Internet and phone provider in the state. Over a period of about 20 years, it has captured a virtual monopoly on cable TV in the Maine communities where it operates.

Time Warner has about 15 percent of the U.S. cable market, but it saw its TV subscriptions decline by about 4.5 percent over the past year or so, as more people turn to online video services such as Netflix, according to Seeking Alpha, a stock market analysis website.

At the same time, industry experts expect Time Warner’s Internet service to grow by about 3.2 percent this year, the website said. Again, Netflix and other low-cost online video services were named as causes.

While the company has recently implemented or announced new initiatives to improve its image among customers, some experts wonder if it’s too little, too late.


History, deregulation and cost have effectively prevented head-to-head cable TV competition in Maine, even though it is allowed under federal law. (See accompanying story on cable history).

The company’s image as a corporate giant with little regard for customers has been enhanced recently by a couple of widely reported events.

In August, Time Warner raised its modem rental fees from $3.95 to $5.99 a month, just one year after the company had stopped a long-standing policy of providing the modems for free. Also in August, Time Warner engaged in a contract dispute with CBS, resulting in the blackout of CBS-owned cable channels, including Showtime, to Time Warner customers for about a month.

Such blackouts on Time Warner and other cable systems are a sore spot with customers who don’t like the fact they’re being deprived of something they contracted to buy.

“With any unregulated business, you do get a lot of complaints because the company is under very few obligations to customers, ” said Wayne Jortner, senior counsel in the state’s Public Advocate’s Office. “It seems the (cable) customers who do best are the ones who drop the service and then come back for a better price.”

But Time Warner says it does care about its customers, and has “millions of satisfied customers” to counter the reports of complaints and dissatisfaction, said Joli Plucknette-Farmen, Time Warner’s public relations manager for the Northeast.

Plucknette-Farmen said that in the past year or so, Time Warner has made improvements to products and service. Specifically, she said the company has expanded the way people can reach it to include social media channels, and this year in Maine, it has started offering one-hour appointment windows instead of telling customers a service person would come between 8 a.m. and noon, for instance.

The company is also offering self-installation kits for tech-savvy customers who would rather install equipment themselves than wait for a company technician. Earlier in September, the company was getting ready to add 30 customer service representatives in its Portland office.

Those additions may have come too late for Ann Colbourn of Cape Elizabeth. She said she recently spent about 90 minutes on hold over two nights while trying to cancel service at her home while it’s being renovated. She finally gave up and decided to go to the office in person, but she wasn’t happy about it.

“When I’ve been on the phone with them, I get completely conflicting information from different people. I got disconnected twice, and then someone put me into an automated line, ” said Colbourn, 49. “When I spend this kind of money ($150 a month) and they treat me like this, it’s very frustrating.”

Plucknette-Farmen said Time Warner is trying to give customers their money’s worth by adding HD channels and new networks, and by offering packages with fewer TV channels. It’s a common complaint from cable viewers that they pay for a lot of channels they never watch, since they can only buy channels in packages, not a la carte.

Plucknette-Farmen said the company now offers a lower-priced 20-channel package with local channels and some popular cable channels. But when asked how much the package costs, Plucknette-Farmen would not answer, saying that the prices vary based on whether a customer is getting a promotional price or a the “retail price.”

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