A mid-month switch of cable providers for thousands of Ventura County residents sent waves of problems through hundreds of households.

Hours after St. Louis, Mo.-based Charter Communications completed its March 17 acquisition of cable franchises here and in the Los Angeles County community of Cerritos previously owned by Seattle-based Wave Broadband, customers began complaining they lost Internet, telephone and television services. Complaints grew as Charter representatives struggled early on to understand why the transition caused more problems than the few they expected were possible.

The problems became so bad, customers claimed and a Charter executive later confirmed, that nearly every customer within the service area acquired from Wave were double-billed, receiving mailings from both companies for the same period of service.

Carlye Elm and her boyfriend, who live in Midtown, were among those hit hardest by the problems. Elm said her Internet shut off on March 17 with no warning.
“I’ve been unemployed, that’s how I look for jobs,” Elm said.

After 40 minutes on the phone with Wave, Elm was told a serial number was incorrect on her cable modem and that she could get a new one free of charge at Charter’s new office, where she ended up waiting another 40 minutes amidst a chaotic scene.

“There were people running around down there like chickens with their heads cut off,” she said.

A corporate representative at the office said the phone representative had been incorrect and Elm would have to pay for a new modem. Only when Elm said she wanted to cancel her service did the employee relent and offer to “ping” her new modem to make it work.

“What really, really irritated me is she said ‘No, you have to give us money,’ until we tried to cancel,” Elm said. “It’s been one headache after another.”

Craig Watson, vice president for communications for Charter’s Western Division, said Elm was likely among 600 Charter customers in Ventura and Cerritos whose accounts fell victim to an unexpected data error.

There are two major billing systems usually used by cable companies, Watson said. Wave used a totally different one that couldn’t be easily adapted to the Convergys system used by Charter. That meant each customer record had to be manually converted, and some bad data and other errors carried over. Some data conversion problems often happen in such transitions, but not this many.

“The numbers were more significant than we expected initially,” Watson said.

When customers first called Charter to complain, the company was caught off guard.

“That initially was frustrating to our call center service as well as the callers,” Watson said. The company deployed extra staff to its offices in Ventura, and most service was restored within 24 hours, he said.

There aren’t yet as many firm numbers for the second problem Charter customers experienced in the transition, Watson said. In this case, older equipment at people’s homes weren’t properly mapped to connect to Charter’s network. That meant modems went offline and many customers who had digital phone service were disconnected.

Coming so soon after those two problems, a third problem that affected nearly every former Wave and new Charter customer put more pressure on the company. Wave was supposed to stop billing as of March 17, while Charter was supposed to send out new bills on and after that date. A glitch in the system meant Wave kept sending its bills, and nearly every customer received two bills for the same service.

Although neither company was fully prepared for the extent of the problems, he said it wasn’t clear either deserved all of the blame.

“Rather than point fingers at them or even at ourselves, I think it is a fact that during any significant transition there could be errors,” he said. “It is true that this was a complex transition. This particular type of transition has never been done before. We felt we had prepared properly for it. Wave would probably say the same. We remain concerned that we didn’t get fully as much support as we needed and expected and something went wrong.”

Charter serves customers in the western portions of the City of Ventura as well as some unincorporated areas outside the city.

Among other conditions from the city in approving Charter’s acquisition of Wave, the company was required to hire an ombudsperson who can respond to complaints brought to the city’s attention. If the company can’t meet customer service standards established by the Federal Communications Commission, it could be required to post a $50,000 bond the city can draw upon for damages.

Ventura’s Acting Civic Engagement Manager, Anne Hallock, collects and processes citizen complaints about cable service. People having issues with Charter should first call the company’s live customer service line at 888-438-2427, she said.

“I’m here for when customer service doesn’t come through,” Hallock said.

According to the franchise agreement, if the city receives 30 complaints it can take further enforcement steps. The city is also meeting on a monthly basis with Charter to make sure any issues are addressed.

“Charter is more than willing to sit down with the city and talk with us,” Assistant City Attorney Sony Hehir said.

Watson said his company has already sent a series of apology letters customized to each customer who experienced problems so they know what went wrong. He said Charter will also do outbound telemarketing calls to each of its customers to personalize the company.

“We’re sorry,” he said. “Whatever problems we suffer, it’s really how is it affecting our customer that is the concern.”