Council to debate cable regulation Comcast officials say they would be forced to charge more HARFORD COUNTY BUSINESS

September 19, 1993|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

Should Harford County regulate the rates charged by its biggest cable TV company, Comcast?

Those who say yes believe it would put teeth in the county's regulatory powers and spur competition, keeping in the spirit of recent changes in federal law governing the cable television industry. But Comcast officials counter that it would only force them to charge more for services, thus costing their customers money.

The County Council has scheduled a hearing for 7 p.m. Nov. 16.

"We need as much input as possible before deciding this matter," said Councilwoman Teresa M. Pierno (D, District C). "We need to hear from cable customers and we hope that representatives of Comcast will be present to respond to questions from both council and customers."

Under new federal regulations announced this summer, local jurisdictions have the power to regulate basic rates charged by cable companies large enough to be considered a monopoly, provided the regulating body -- in this case the County Council -- is certified by the Federal Communications Commission.

The regulations were designed to promote competition among cable companies and to lower prices charged cable customers. In fact, they have resulted in higher charges for an estimated 40 percent of all cable customers nationwide.

Comcast, with some 44,000 subscribers in Harford County, would fall under the new regulations. Harford's other cable company, Clearview CATV, has only 5,000 subscribers, mostly in the northern part of the county, and is considered too small to fall under their purview.

Certification would give county officials the power to regulate fees charged for the basic package offered cable subscribers, but not the charges for such other services as premium channels. The county would also regulate fees charged for equipment necessary to receive the basic package.

Without certification, a cable company can establish rates without local challenge.

In addition, the county could insist that Comcast charge the actual cost of installation. Under current practice, companies such as Comcast frequently offer reduced-price or free installation. Any money lost is made up through charges for premium services and equipment rental.

Brian A. Lynch, general manager for Comcast Cable in Harford County, said local regulation could result in higher services charges.

"Right now our installation costs are extremely low because we absorb those fees across our entire package," he said. "Certification would mean that we would no longer offer discount packages."

He cited 450 homes between Churchville and Darlington that have been wired for service. Without low-cost installation, he said, few customers would have signed up. Certification, he warned, could cause Comcast to decide against providing service to some areas.

"If certification had been in place, I seriously doubt most of those families would have subscribed," he said. "There are numerous other similar areas awaiting cable service but, if the county decides to certify, our rate of return would not warrant providing service."

He said the current average installation cost is $19.

Elected officials of Harford County, as well as Bel Air, Havre de Grace and Aberdeen, could file with the FCC as a single licensing body. Under such an arrangement, said Mary Kate Matanoski, the county council's legislative writer, the cost of data collection could be shared and joint hearings to establish rate schedules could be held.

The costs associated with regulating the local cable industry have yet to be determined, she said.

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