Consumer activist Richard F. Kirchner hopes to persuade the Howard County Council tonight that the county needs a cable TV ombudsman to deal with new regulations and a "madhouse" bureaucracy.
Mr. Kirchner, who plans to speak in favor of a resolution to regulate rates for basic cable service, says the problem for cable subscribers is that such regulation probably would help only 5 percent of them.
"Most cable subscribers in Howard County have expanded service, which has a much greater variety of cable channels," he said, "But the authority proposed in this resolution does not relate to this form of service."
Even the limited local regulation of basic rates may not happen soon. A federal freeze on basic rates expires at midnight tonight. If local jurisdictions do not act on the rate structure by that time, cable franchises may freely increase their basic service rates. An increase is likely here because the council is not scheduled to vote on the basic rates resolution until Dec. 6.
Meanwhile, Mr. Kirchner worries that cable companies will raise their expanded service rates in January. Federal law enacted last year does not permit local communities to regulate rates beyond the basic tier of service, Mr. Kirchner said. It does, however, "provide for a rather awkward complaint-driven review process by the Federal Communications Commission."
Mr. Kirchner says the process is so cumbersome that subscribers will need help challenging any rate increases they believe are unjustified. He said he made several visits to the commission headquarters in Washington recently and found it to be a "madhouse" -- no complaint forms available, people being referred to a post office box, inquiries going largely unanswered.
"Franchising authorities like the county are permitted to file their own complaints," he said. "It seems to me that the county has to provide this help to consumers and to initiate complaints where justified."
An ombudsman assigned to the cable administrator's office could be paid from the county's 5 percent franchise fees, which amount to more than $1 million a year, Mr. Kirchner said.
The rates resolution is one of 17 pieces of legislation on the council docket at tonight's 8 o'clock hearing in the county office building. It is one of two pieces of cable legislation before the council.
The other is a bill requiring local franchise holders to provide understandable billing and provide prompt and efficient customer service.
"Ninety-five percent of the complaints I receive against the cable companies deal with customer-service problems," said James O'Connor, the county cable administrator. Passage of the bill "would go a long way in showing that we have a concern for the residents of Howard County and how the cable companies deal with them," he said.
Among the other pieces of legislation on the council docket are a bill to establish shared sewage facilities in the rural western portion of the county, and a resolution authorizing payment of a fee in lieu of taxes by the owners of apartment complexes that offer reduced rates to poor and moderate-income families.
A bill establishing a county equal business opportunity program, a bill doubling existing fines when pets soil other people's property, and a resolution to heighten public awareness of the need to stop at red lights also are to be considered.