Cheaper Basic Package Is Needed, Officials Say

February 26, 1992|By Greg Tasker and Amy Miller | Greg Tasker and Amy Miller,Staff writers

Local officials who work with Prestige Cable TV Inc. appear most frustrated with two aspects of the company's service -- lack of a less expensive package of basic service and the mandatory remote control charge.

Among the most vocal critics has been Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown, who doesn't subscribe to the cable service.

He has been critical of the firm for not offering a lower tier ofservices for senior citizens, who generally live on fixed incomes.

A check of other cable firms showed most do offer a less expensive level of service.

But Bill Bethune, general manager for Prestige in Carroll County, said the company has not offered a lower tier of services because it wouldn't be cost-effective. However, he said that could change with a bill recently approved by the U.S. Senate and now before the House.

"We don't really have a problem with providing separate tiers if it is done properly," Bethune said. "If we put a lowtier out there for $12 a month and one-third of our customers take it -- the extra revenue we lost is going to have to come from somewhere else."

Hampstead Manager John A. Riley, who represents the town on the county's cable committee, said one of the most frequent complaints he hears from customers is the cost of the remote control.

"There's been a lot of complaints," he said. "But I really don't know (Prestige's) cost factors. I know Prestige has a state-of-the-art system and that's probably one of the reasons it's more expensive."

It's not just the charge for the remote that bothers subscriber Carol Rankin of Eldersburg.

"Every year we get another rate increase," she said. "With the economy really down and people scraping by, I just don't see how they can justify raising rates."

Mark Tauber, an attorney who's represented the county in cable suits, said that while the franchise agreement is enforceable, various aspects of the initial agreement, such as rates and charges for remote controls, do not fallunder county control.

The remote control, which has been the subject of many complaints, would fall under rate charges, he said.

Bethune conceded the remote fee is a revenue generator for the firm. Without that additional income, he said, the cost of basic service would increase. He said it is fair to charge a remote fee to those customers who prefer not to manually change channels.

Consumers, though,may find some help in the near future from lawmakers.

Prestige and other cable firms are closely watching the status of Senate Bill 12, which would re-regulate the industry.

Bethune said Prestige is opposed to portions of that bill, such as retransmission, which would require them to carry over-the-air channels and pay a fee for them. He said if the government wants cable companies to pay for those channels, cable firms should have a say about providing them.

"Personally, I think there will be some kind of new regulation," Bethune said."But I don't think the total bill will become a law."

Tauber said, though, that there are no assurances the House is going to pass that bill or any bill. And he noted that if the House passes such a bill, President Bush has gone on record saying he would veto the measure.

At the state level, consumers may find more to grumble about.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has proposed imposing a 5.5 percent entertainment tax, which would include imposing taxes on cable television. Bethune is opposed to the measure and noted that if approved, the tax will be passed on to customers.

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