Conflicts arise on cable bill

November 23, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The Howard County Council heard conflicting opinions during last night's work session on a bill that would require cable television franchises to provide prompt, efficient service.

The county's cable advisory committee is "comfortable that this is a bill whose time has come for this county," Michel Gledhill, the panel's chairwoman, said.

"It is a terrible statute," said Stephen Hannan, the county's consumer affairs administrator.

Although Mr. Hannan believes the bill provides too much regulation of local cable franchises, he said he worked with cable administrator James W. O'Connor to provide "the least intrusive manner of enforcement."

Essentially, the bill is an outgrowth of the federal Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992. The federal statute requires local jurisdictions to require holders of cable television franchises to provide prompt and efficient customer service, understandable and accurate billing and information about customer rights.

Representatives of the two cable companies that operate in Howard County told the council at a public hearing last week that they agreed with most of the performance requirements in the bill, but they objected to fines for repeated infractions, such as failure to answer a telephone in 30 seconds.

The council bill calls for fines ranging from $50 to $1,000. At last night's work session on the bill, the council tentatively agreed to an amendment that would reduce the maximum fines to $100.

Republicans Darrel Drown, of the 2nd District, and Charles C. Feaga, of the 5th District, worried that the fines would be passed on to customers -- a strategy that Mr. O'Connor, the cable administrator, said the federal government strictly forbids.

"Requiring someone to answer the phone within 30 seconds is to me a classic case of over-regulation," Mr. Drown said. "The only complaint I've ever received [from constituents about cable service] is that the rates are too high. These regulations will add a couple of dollars [a month] to everyone's bill."

Ms. Gledhill saw things differently. She told council members that when she first joined the cable advisory committee five years ago she was told that "the constituents of Howard County are the most important thing. If these regulations give the service they are looking for, if this is what the customer wants, shouldn't we pass it?"

Not if it cost more, Mr. Feaga said.

"We didn't create this monster," said cable committee member Nellie W. Arrington. "The [requirements] are mandated" by the federal government.

"I would hate to see the bill passed with no penalties whatsoever," Mr. O'Connor said. He asked council members to view the fines as a "tickler to remind cable companies of their responsibility" rather than as a penalty for noncompliance.

He said that the companies have good service records, and he doubted that fines would ever have to be levied.

Much to the chagrin of cable operators, the council agreed to retain the fines but planned to reduce the maximum penalty.

Earlier, Ms. Gledhill told the council that county residents have "unrealistic expectations" of the cable advisory committee. The panel cannot dictate rates or programming, she said.

People who have complaints should first contact the company, and then Mr. O'Connor. If they are still not satisfied, the committee will act as a liaison between Mr. O'Connor and the cable companies, she said. The council directed Mr. O'Connor to notify subscribers that he will act as an ombudsman for them.

The council will vote on the cable bill Monday night along with 16 other pieces of legislation.

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