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The cable guys get static

Charter's subscribers say newpackage is a double whammy

Any seasoned business person knows it's not wise to surprise your customers &

8212; especially if that surprise reduces the service they receive and increases their costs.

Charter Communications, which operates the cable television franchise for much of the Rogue Valley, is currently feeling the pain of delivering one of those unhappy surprises. Its customers found out &

8212; some through reading it first in this newspaper and some when they turned on their sets Tuesday &

8212; that just about every channel had changed and that, for some, the cost of watching the boob tube had just gone up dramatically.

This was obviously a botched operation. Charter officials said they had printed notices that were scheduled to be mailed to subscribers before the switchover, but the mailings wound up delayed and showed up in mailboxes after the change.

Now, that irritated people, but it wouldn't have qualified as a big deal if late notice were the only news. What really set off a storm of protest were the changes in content and cost for subscribers to Charter's low-end "basic" service. (If you want to read what some subscribers thought of the deal, see the Forums section on . Definitely some unhappy campers there.)

The basic-service customers clearly got the short end of this "business decision." Rates rose from about $12.50 a month to one penny under $20. That's a 60 percent increase. Adding salt to the wound, the basic package now no longer includes popular programming like CNN, Fox News, the Discovery Channel and Hallmark Channel. So, for $20 a month, basic package subscribers get only the basics, which consist of local broadcast channels and not much else. Or they have the option of paying $48 a month to get a larger package that includes the channels now missing on basic. Well, you might say, this is the market at work. It's a free country and a company can charge what it wants. True, but with a couple of notable asterisks:

First, Charter is a franchise company, which means it has been designated as the cable TV service provider in the county. So this is not really the free market at work. The only place it faces real competition is in Ashland, through the city's Ashland Fiber Network. And, son of a gun, what do you know: Charter's rates in Ashland are one-third lower than elsewhere.

Second, the changes Charter imposed have the biggest impact on those least able to afford the extra cost. For low-income people and seniors on fixed incomes, pushing the rate up $7 a month is more than an inconvenience. And the likelihood of them being able to jump from $12.50 a month to $48 &

8212; an annual increase of about $425 &

8212; is remote.

When Charter offered its basic package, it said it realized that the extended service was not a viable option for some people. It has apparently forgotten that, and those same people are hopping mad. As with any franchise agreement, this one will come up for review at some point. We're sure there will be some choice words offered by customers, or former customers, when that happens.