Time Warner Cable breaks ranks from Cablevision, Comcast on Hurricane Sandy billing policy

Steve Donohue, FierceCable

When it comes to crediting the bills of subscribers for service outages, Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA), Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), Cablevision (NYSE: CVC) and other cable MSOs have followed the same policy for years. Rather than automatically credit the accounts of subscribers that lose cable service or individual networks, the MSOs have required that subscribers call customer service representatives to request credits for hours or days that they are unable to watch pay TV, surf the Web or make phone calls.

Time Warner Cable broke ranks with Comcast and Cablevision on Thursday, announcing it would automatically credit the bills of subscribers who lost service in areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy. "By posting credits automatically to customers' accounts in the hardest-hit parts of our service area, we hope these affected residents and businesses will have one less call to make as they recover from the storm," John Quigley, regional VP of operations for the MSO's New York City system, said in Thursday's announcement.

Cablevision, whose subscribers in New Jersey and Long Island have been hit harder by Hurricane Sandy than any other provider, is also offering to credit the bills of customers who have lost service because of the super storm. But it isn't applying the credits automatically. "We're letting all of our customers know they do need to call us for the credits," Cablevision EVP of product management and marketing Kristin Dolan said on the company's third-quarter earnings call on Tuesday. Comcast is following a similar policy for subscribers impacted by Hurricane Sandy, offering to credit the bills of subscribers only if they call the company.

Digital cable technology allows cable MSOs to track every click of a remote control from subscriber homes, and it allows them to detect whether a set-top is powered on or off. Surely, it would not be too difficult for Cablevision and Comcast to determine which subscribers lost service from Hurricane Sandy and automatically apply credits for days of lost service similar to what Time Warner Cable is doing.

The major cable MSOs have also adopted unique policies when it comes to offering access to WiFi hotspots to subscribers impacted by the storm. Comcast and Time Warner Cable are allowing all residents in areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy to access their WiFi access points for free, even if they are subscribers of Verizon (NYSE: VZ), AT&T (NYSE: T) or other broadband rivals. But Cablevision, which has a more extensive WiFi network than any other cable provider, is limiting access to its WiFi network to its Optimum high-speed Internet subscribers.

The storm recovery efforts seem like a missed opportunity to market the cable industry's new CableWiFi brand. In May, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Cablevision and Bright House announced that they would allow subscribers in areas with WiFi access points to access hotspots that contained the CableWiFi network ID. The CableWiFi announcement was one of the biggest stories at The Cable Show convention in Boston in May, but we've heard little about the project since then. Instead of Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and Comcast following conflicting policies when it comes to issues such as WiFi access and billing in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the MSOs could have better used the recovery to combine efforts to improve cable's image. --Steve