shellComcast is pulling out every trick in the book to deny residents of St. Paul, Minn., a 10% discount off service at least one-quarter of the residents are entitled to receive.

A hard-fought franchise agreement between the city of St. Paul and Comcast includes a rare provision requiring the cable company to offer a $1 or 10% monthly discount off basic cable television (whichever is greater) and a 10% discount off other cable television services to senior citizens, persons who are disabled, and those economically disadvantaged.

Given St. Paul’s poverty rates, at least 27,000 households, or one-quarter of St. Paul’s residents likely qualify for the discount because they belong to one or more of the qualifying target groups.

But Comcast has not made it easy to get the savings, telling customers they are not qualified, don’t deserve the discount, or have to apply at a local cable store, whose telephone number(s) cannot be given out for reasons of homeland security.

comcastThe Pioneer Press has reported twice on the elusive discounts, despite Comcast’s repeated promises it would train its customer service representatives to handle discount requests correctly. In their latest findings, Comcast appears to have doubled down on keeping discounts away from customers.

Sharon Jonas, 67, received the most unlikely excuse of all — she would have to apply at a local Xfinity store for a senior discount, but the representative was not allowed to disclose the store’s phone number out of concern for company safety.

“They tell me I have to personally go to the Xfinity store to inquire about the discount,” Jonas told the newspaper. “I told them I have no car and asked for the phone number for the store, thinking perhaps they could mail me an application. The rep told me ‘because of security reasons’ he could not give that number out. I politely thanked him and hung up.”

If Comcast bothers to take your application over the phone, chances are you still won’t qualify for the discount according to them. Various Comcast representatives claim you must be a poor and disabled senior citizen who takes only the barest cable package and has the correct discount-authorized equipment already in your home. What type of equipment is that, exactly? Comcast cannot divulge that information.

Fine print

Fine print

Ruby Fabian was denied a senior discount because she was not poor or disabled enough to qualify. She found out after Comcast mailed her a form called “Low Income Discount Affidavit: Seniors or Disability.”

Although city officials are adamant Comcast must provide the discount to senior citizens -and- the disabled -and- the economically challenged, Comcast demanded applicants meet at least two of those criteria before qualifying.

Fabian was asked to mail proof her adjusted gross annual income totaled less than $17,500 before she could qualify for the senior discount. That’s wrong, according to city officials and contract experts:

Dan Kleinberger, a professor emeritus at William Mitchell College of Law and former consumer protection attorney, reviewed the contract language at the request of the Pioneer Press, and he found its intent clear.

On pages 10 and 11 of the contract, the franchise agreement uses the words “and” and “or” interchangeably when it describes the groups that qualify for the discount.

It says the company will offer a 10 percent discount on basic service “for Senior citizens, Persons with disabilities and Persons who are economically disadvantaged.” It goes on to say the same level of discount applies to “other cable services that it offers to Senior citizens, Persons with disabilities or the Economically disadvantaged.”

“I don’t even think the first sentence is ambiguous, but if there were a doubt, the second sentence takes care of it. … Any reasonable person who would read this would say, you are offering a discount to each of these groups,” Kleinberger said.

If Comcast can’t kill your discount application that way, customers claim other excuses are used to invalidate your request. The most popular is to claim “you are already receiving a discount” because a customer is bundling two or more cable services together. The discount application form unilaterally specifies, “I understand that I will not be eligible for the discount if I am receiving any promotional offer or my services are incorporated into a digital value package,” a restriction the city says was never part of the franchise contract it has with Comcast.

Another Comcast mess

Another Comcast mess

Emmett Coleman, a Comcast vice president, acknowledged the restriction.

“Yes, customers who have bundled packages are ineligible for the discount because the bundled package already is offered at a discounted rate,” Coleman said.

But such a restriction would largely invalidate the intent and purpose of the discount program – to extend extra savings to selected groups of challenged residents. A bundled discount is available to any subscriber, so it cannot substitute for a limited rate relief program.

But so far Comcast seems to be winning the battle against offering the discounts, using almost any reason a customer service representative can conjure up.

“The girl put me on hold for 10 minutes,” Patricia Jerde, age 68, told the newspaper. “She came back and said you can’t get it. I said why? She said, you’re already getting a discount. And you have to have certain equipment in your home. That senior discount has been going on for quite a while, and I never knew about it. I said, isn’t there something to fill out? And she says, ‘I don’t know.’ She put me on hold again. She came back and read me this great big spree that they’ve got, the rules and regulations.”

After reading through the city’s franchise agreement, Frank Villaume III went to the Xfinity store he managed to find on his own to get his senior discount, without success.

“I am 69 years old and a Comcast customer since it began service here. I was told I wasn’t eligible because I already receive a discount for bundling cable, phone and Internet,” he said.