Cable Regulation May Not Affect County

September 19, 1990|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,SUN STAFF

Carroll subscribers expecting lower cable rates may see no change in service or price as a result of congressional efforts to regulate the industry.

Doris White, a liaison between county government, the county's largest cable company and residents, said legislation passed by the House of Representatives last week places additional burdens on cable companies, but probably won't affect subscribers here.

A vice president at Prestige Cable TV, the county's largest cable company, said prices would not decrease if the legislation becomes law.

The legislation, among other things, would give the federal government power to regulate basic, minimum-service rates in order to encourage competition and force companies with excessive rates to lower them.

The Senate is considering a similar bill. President George Bush has threatened to veto any legislation that passes both houses.

U.S. Representative Beverly B. Byron, D-6th, supported the legislation because many of her constituents in Western Maryland depend on cable for TV reception, her spokesman, Beau Wright, said.

White said she favors regulation of the cable industry, but said congressional efforts do not seem to be simplifying the oversight process.

"It makes things more of a mess than they were originally," she said. "It's going to be a jungle. There should never have been deregulation in the first place."

Congress deregulated the cable industry six years ago after cable companies complained of "excessive demands" on them by local governments.

Since then, cable rates around the country have increased.

Prestige, which came to Carroll in 1984, has raised its rate for basic channels 253 percent since then. The current cost for 33 channels is $18.95 a month.

The company has about 18,400 subscribers in the county.

The legislation passed last week would shift regulatory authority from local communities to the federal government, which could create problems, said Susan Herman, president of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors.

"Who is best suited to respond to consumer complaints? Can you imagine consumers calling the Federal Communications Commission with complaints?" she said.

NATOA, an affiliate of the congressional lobby the National League of Cities, represents more than 400 city and county cable regulators around the country. The group did not support the House bill, Herman said.

The legislation would give the FCC power to monitor rates for premium channels such as HBO and Showtime, but says the agency could roll back prices only if they were "unreasonable or abusive." The bill did not precisely define "unreasonable or abusive."

Robert Cole, of Manchester Cable Co., the only other cable company in Carroll, said he could not comment on the effect the legislation might have on his 400 subscribers until a law is adopted.

"We're a small operator, and we just have to go with the flow of the crowd," he said.

The company has a franchise agreement with the town, not the county.

Richard Caswell, vice president of marketing for Prestige at its headquarters in Cartersville, Ga., said the company believes cable TV companies have enough competition.

"We don't like any legislation, of course," he said. "We feel it's private enterprise and should not be regulated.

"We'd rather have competition than re-regulation," he added.

The House legislation also would require that cable operators carry certain public TV stations and that the FCC develop customer-service guidelines.

White said Prestige subscribers probably won't see a change because the company already carries several public TV stations and has improved its customer relations in the past few years.

"They've responded well to people, but not everyone is satisfied because the cable companies have not been required to do what people expect them to do," she said.

"Too many people think of a cable company as a utility. It's a private company," she said.

Subscribers have called her to complain that Prestige won't send a repairman out late at night. Unlike the electric and telephone companies, Prestige doesn't have to do that, she said.

"People forget that television is not a requirement. You do not need television to survive," White said.

The franchise agreement between Prestige and the county does not give the county power to regulate rates, she said.

"Prestige is a private company that provides a service. Local authority has never had that much control," White said.

The House and Senate bills do not include provisions to allow telephone companies, which are barred from the cable industry but have the capability to transmit video signals, to get into the cable business.

PROVISIONS OF LEGISLATION INCLUDE: *Regulation of basic minimum service rates.

*A new "must-carry" requirement that cable operators carry specified public TV stations.

*Allowing the Federal Communications Commission to develop customer service guidelines that can be enforced by local franchise authorities.

*Allowing the FCC to set maximum rates for leased access channels SOURCE: House Committee on Energy and Commerce Copyright The Baltimore Sun 1990

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