GALVESTON — Joanne Stone had missed an episode of “NCIS,” but that didn’t worry her much. Her cable provider had on demand service, meaning she could sit down later and watch the popular CBS crime drama at her leisure.
Stone started watching just before 10 a.m. But just minutes into the show, her television screen went blank.
She wasn’t the only one.
“It was the quietest apartment building you ever heard,” Stone said.
Blaming each other
Since May 1, residents of the island’s two housing authority-managed apartment buildings have been without cable and Internet service as a result of a dispute between the authority and the country’s largest cable provider, Comcast.
The housing authority manages 356 apartments at the Gulf Breeze and Holland House apartments. All but seven of the apartments are occupied.
Each side blames the other for the shutdown, and it is unclear when service could be turned back on.
According to authority officials, the service shutdown was a decision made by Comcast after the authority decided to end a long-standing service agreement. Comcast said the lack of an agreement with the housing authority is preventing technicians from even entering the Gulf Breeze and Holland House apartment buildings. The company also claims it is owed more than $20,000 in unpaid cable fees from housing authority residents.
Changing its policy
The situation developed in January when the island’s housing commissioners recommended the agency change its policy in regard to cable services.
Authority Finance Director Bil Bruney told the commissioners Comcast was seeking an increase in the basic cable rate for residents, who until April paid $18 a month for the basic packages.
Bruney said Comcast was seeking to increase the rate to $22 and begin a “bulk agreement” that would charge for every apartment run by the GHA, whether it was occupied or unoccupied and whether the resident in the apartment wanted service or not.
Such a change would violate federal laws that prevent the authority from paying for entertainment services, Bruney said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does not allow tax money to pay for entertainment, Bruney said.
“That may be fine with a market rate apartment. But here you are dealing with a unit that is subsidized with HUD money,” he said.
Just a billing service
Until last month, he said, the authority acted as a billing service for Comcast, collecting the $18 fee from customers who used cable and forwarding that amount to Comcast. He said the authority did not profit from the collections and acted only as an intermediary.
Faced with the new proposal by Comcast, Bruney said the authority decided to remove itself entirely from the equation. The authority began informing residents that after April, they would have to arrange their own service with Comcast or find alternatives.
In late March, Bruney wrote to Comcast, informing the company of the authority’s intent to stop billing residents on Comcast’s behalf.
“Our role has become too burdensome and your incentive too small to sustain such a symbiosis,” Bruney wrote. “We wish you all the best with the transition.”
The transition May 1, however, was anything but smooth. Services at not only the apartment buildings shut down, but also at the housing authority’s headquarters on Broadway.
The headquarters’ cable and Internet has since been restored because it is separate from the authority’s agreement for apartment billing, Bruney said.
Stone and other residents said they followed the GHA’s direction to begin paying for their own cable service directly to Comcast and were surprised to have their service discontinued along with others who had not done so.
Comcast spokesman Michael Bybee said that the mass cancellation happened because the company no longer had a “right of entry” agreement with the housing authority. The agreement allows Comcast technicians to install wiring and other necessary components for television service inside multiple-resident buildings.
“We’ve tried tirelessly for over a year to get this,” Bybee said, adding that the agreement the authority originally had refused was the typical agreement the company enters with apartment buildings.
“We successfully enter these private service agreements every day,” he said.
Housing authority officials dispute that claim, saying the cable company has permission to install individual cable service and is choosing not to enter the apartment buildings.
There might be more at issue than just having the proper permissions, however.
Bruney acknowledged Wednesday that Comcast was seeking more than $20,000 for unpaid cable bills from GHA apartments. Bruney said that in the past, some residents had not paid their basic cable rates — and in some cases moved out of the housing complexes with outstanding bills.
But, he said, it was Comcast’s responsibility to collect those bills, not the housing authority’s.
“We did not intend to pay that outstanding bill,” Bruney said.
Bybee, the Comcast spokesman, declined to comment on any billing disputes.
‘Let them watch TV’
In the meantime, residents have been left to find their own ways to entertain themselves until the TVs are turned back on.
Sandra Perez said the past week had resulted in marathon sessions of “Grey’s Anatomy” at her mother’s Holland House apartment.
“I own every season,” Perez said. “But she’ll have to deal without ‘General Hospital.’”
Perez said she felt for residents who are unable to leave their apartments and might not have alternatives to television.
“I think they should have the option if they can afford to pay for it,” Perez said. “If that’s all they have left in life, let them watch TV.”
Authority spokeswoman Clover Nuetzmann said residents were welcome to seek out other service providers but acknowledged that logistically, some other popular TV options would not be allowed.
“Residents can sign up with any type of service on their own,” Nuetzmann said. “But they would not be able to place any kind of dish on the building.”