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Kotzebue TV fans left in dark by satellite provider's woes

Jill Burke
Loren Holmes illustration

TV lovers in Kotzebue, Alaska, are steamed. It was bad enough that the much-coveted satellite television service that the people of this remote regional town in the northwest corner of Alaska signed up for earlier this year turned out to be a flop. But getting anyone at Direct TV to listen, much less do anything about it, only added insult to injury. 

Now, with football fever sweeping over the nation, Kotzebue residents are scrambling to get their money back, be freed from mandatory two-year contracts, and switch over to anything more reliable. 

"A good thing went bad," said Jason Avery, a Direct TV fan and Kotzebue city councilman. Somehow, the service worked at his house last fall. So he encouraged the retailer who sold it to come to Kotzebue, where people would surely jump at the chance to save money and get more for what they spent. "We got more and paid less," he explained of people's eagerness to indulge in a three-way competition brewing between television providers.

"I just thought it was a good thing for the people," Avery said in an interview Tuesday. And what was so good? More channels, a better picture, more high-definition channels, and lower monthly fees than what either local cable distributor GCI or satellite rival Dish Network provided.

Cheaper deal

Avery estimates GCI cable cost him about $212 a month. But Direct TV -- with nearly 75 percent of the 278-channel package he purchased broadcasting in HD -- was less than half the cost, just $98 per month after an initial $300 set-up fee.

He thought he'd stumbled onto something great. A few Kotzebue homes, including his own, received Direct TV last fall. Even during the so-called "storm of the century" in November, which brought hurricane force winds, snow and cold to Northwest Alaska, the signal came through.

A Direct TV provider, Alaska Cellular and Satellite, soon was in Kotzebue to sign more people up, with Avery putting in the good word to interested buyers. Sales crews set up tables near the post office, and got a lot of people to drop their cable service and give Direct TV a try.

But by spring, when temperatures warmed and the snow and ice of Alaska’s winter melted, reception became troublesome at best -- and Direct TV suddenly didn't seem like such a deal. "It got to the point where you couldn't even watch a TV show. Everybody was getting upset," Avery said.

When Direct TV customers tried to get out of their service contracts, they were told they would have to pay $20 a month for the remaining term, Avery said.

People kept asking "How can I have to pay for something I am not getting?" he added.

Switching back

"When it was sunny and clear, the signal was fine. The picture quality (over cable) was night and day. But when it rained, there would be outages for hours on end," said Seth Piper, who switched his restaurant, Otto's Pizza, over to Direct TV. The package he purchased saved him $40 monthly over GCI, and came with hundreds of channels. "From a business standpoint it just made more sense."

Just this week he switched over to another satellite provider, DISH Network, and is optimistic for a better result. Avery has done the same thing. Alaska Cellular Satellite rival Microcom is handling many of the change-overs.

It is still not entirely clear why the Direct TV signal has encountered so many problems in Kotzebue. But there are plenty of theories. Calls to service providers Direct TV, Alaska Cellular Satellite and Microcom were not immediately returned.

Kotzebue locals chalked it up to the sun at first. Heat waves from spring and summer weather might disrupt the low-angle signal just enough to cause problems. And, there is a water issue, too.  The receiver in the center of the dishes doesn't withstand water well, Piper said, and has been known to fritz out if it gets wet. Some residents, he said, have tried solving this by placing plastic milk jugs over the top to function as make-shift umbrellas.

Avery believes it may come down to simple physics: the satellite Direct TV relies on for its signal may just be too low on the horizon.

GCI customers who ditched cable for Direct TV and now have buyer's remorse say that the Alaska cable giant has agreed to restore service without charging its usual reconnect fees. As with the satellite companies, inquiries to GCI were not immediately returned.

Avery feels bad he went out on a limb for what turned out to be a dud. "I am bummed out. Direct TV is a good product. If it works."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com