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Charter Communications Inc. subscribers may get free premium services under a proposed settlement that the nation’s third-largest cable TV systems operator reached in a lawsuit over questioned charges. As part of the deal, detailed in the company’s full-page advertisement Thursday in USA Today, eligible customers may be able to choose six months of free high-speed Internet service, service upgrades or movie channel service. Other options include six free pay-per-view or video-on-demand selections. St. Louis-based Charter, controlled by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, has more than 6 million customers in 37 states. It was not immediately clear how many consumers would be eligible for the free services or the settlement’s cost to Charter, though trade magazine Multichannel News reported Monday that amount may reach as much as $200 million, depending on which compensation customers choose. The settlement applies to people who subscribed to Charter’s residential cable TV service before July 8 and paid a fee to participate in the company’s wire-maintenance plan, or who paid a fee to rent an analog or digital converter box while getting basic or expanded basic service. The lawsuit filed in 2001 by two Spartanburg, S.C., customers accused Charter of charging for a wire-maintenance service without adequately notifying that the plan was not mandatory. The company also allegedly billed some basic and expanded-basic customers for unneeded converters. That lawsuit later was joined with a similar case in Georgia, where a judge on July 8 gave preliminary approval to the settlement. The matter may be finalized during a hearing there Nov. 10. Cam Lewis, a South Carolina attorney representing the plaintiffs, cheered the deal reached with help from a San Francisco mediator, crediting Charter with “stepping up and correcting this.” As part of the settlement, Charter admits no wrongdoing, saying in the newspaper ad it “denies that it has been in any way misleading and raises a number of defenses to these claims.” Saying it settled the matter to “avoid the significant cost in time and money to litigate,” Charter insists on its Web page detailing the settlement that “we have been fair and honest in dealing with our customers with respect to the charges.” Charter did not return telephone calls on Thursday. Existing Charter customers also were being notified of the proposed deal in their September bills. A month ago, Charter agreed to pay $144 million in cash and stock to settle shareholder lawsuits accusing the company of inflating its financial results and customer numbers. In July 2003, four former Charter executives were indicted on federal charges of scheming to defraud investors by inflating the company’s revenue and cash flow. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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