It is now the end of January.
A constantly closed office isn’t the only complaint voiced by customers of Zito, the Jonathan Creek internet and cable provider. On the Jonathan Creek community Facebook page, people also spoke of consistency issues, citing weeks of outages; service and billing issues; and some even say that channels for the company’s cable service were downgraded without warning.
Zito, which has an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau, bought Carolina Mountain Cablevision last May, and the complaints have been consistent ever since. Liz Brandt said her service quality is better at Carolina Mountain Cablevision.
“We’ve been here 24 years,” Brandt said. “Until we got Zito last year, [Carolina Mountain Cablevision President] Terry [Sersland] it was great. Outages were rare, and when they occurred, they never lasted more than 24 hours.”
In a Mountaineer story last October, Zito Media President Jim Rigas said the transition to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners was more difficult than he expected.
“There are always some bumps in the road with any transition,” Rigas said in October. “In that case, I will stay on my sword. “There were probably more shots than we’re used to.”
A few months ago, Rigas took heat for a price hike for not carrying Viacom, which made several channels unavailable. Brandt said the problem persists.
Brandt also talked about problems with channel selection and laughed when talking about the company’s lack of a channel guide, a seemingly simple thing that seems conspicuously absent.
“The channels change so much, it’s hard to keep track,” he said. “Fox News has moved from channel 29 to 17.6. How should we monitor it? Since we couldn’t find anything, we started writing down the channels.”
Brandt also cited problems with billing consistency, saying he pays a different amount each month.
“The price increased from $148 to $151 to $161,” he said. “I once called their customer service line to make sure they received my payment and got an automated response saying I owed more than $300.”
Angie Franklin worked at Carolina Mountain Cablevision for about three years before it was sold. He said he asked a representative from Zito if the office would be open before the sale closed.
“The answer was, “it will be initially,”’ Franklin said. “It didn’t make me feel confident.”
Franklin also noted that while customers have been told throughput and reliability issues are due to old infrastructure and technology, he doesn’t think that’s true.
“I think it’s important to note that the infrastructure itself hasn’t changed,” he said. “Zito connects all of its systems in 22 states in one loop through its own bandwidth/network.”
In an interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Rigas said that while the company has staff to perform the technical work required to maintain grid reliability in Western North Carolina, it does not have the staff to run a consistent office.
“We continue to work with staff at the local office, but it’s been difficult,” Rigas said. “We had difficulty keeping employees. We will keep this office open in the future when the workforce situation stabilizes. This is our goal and expectation.”
“Probably every cable company in the country will tell you that they’ve had a staffing problem for the last three or more years, and we’re no different,” he said.
Rigas, the son of the late cable giant John Rigas, who owned Adelphia Communications but was convicted of securities fraud and served 15 years in prison, started Zito in 2005. Parts of Swain and Graham counties and as far east as Burnsville. While most of these operations are fairly new, he said the company began serving the Bryson City area about 10 years ago.
As for reliability issues, which customers have noted are not common under Mountain Cable Vision, Rigas said he is working on a solution.
“We are in the planning process and expect to be up and running with the system upgrade in the next month or two,” he said.
“In terms of actual service complaints, it’s hard for me to comment on that in the abstract,” he said. “Of course, if there are specific customers who feel their service is not reliable, we do our best to maintain a reliable service.”
Rigas also talked about the future of the company’s cable service, reiterating that it originally didn’t have a contract with Viacom and therefore had certain channels they didn’t carry, something he said happened years ago. He added that the company is moving to a new streaming technology similar to YouTube TV.
“Your video will be delivered by the technology your internet is running on,” he said. “Instead of a broadcast signal, it’s an ISP-based transmission.”
“Technically, the whole world is moving in this direction, and the old way of broadcasting that cable operators used is disappearing,” he said.
Reliability and access to high-speed internet has been a serious issue for Western North Carolina for quite some time, and lawmakers have spent a lot of time thinking about it. As reported by The Smoky Mountain News last September, the area received tens of millions of dollars in Growing Rural Economies Through Access to Technology (BIG) Grants as part of an effort led by Sen. Kevin Corby (R-Franklin).
The most recent round of grants totaled nearly $19 million in North Carolina’s seven westernmost counties to serve almost 8,400 locations. Although Zito serves many areas in the region, Graham and Swain are the only locations where it has received grant money to serve more customers. Rigas noted that the Graham County grant was approved several years ago, and construction there should be underway soon.
“The finalization of the contract is still ongoing,” Rigas said of the Swain County grant.
Rigas said he hopes Zito will receive a future grant to serve Haywood more. Spectrum Internet was the recipient of a previous grant to expand access in that county.