Cable prices prompt outrage Complaint to be filed with FCC, but 10% boost likely to remain

November 05, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

A 10 percent increase in Comcast Cablevision's rates has angered Howard County subscribers and prompted plans by the county cable office to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission.

But county officials have little hope they can curb rate increases that have pushed the cost of the average cable bill to more than $30 a month -- a dollar a day for an ever-growing menu of television channels.

The trend is the same across the country: A shortage of industry competition and a loosening of federal regulation has prompted rate increases that local governments have little power to fight, say consumer groups and others.

The County Council this month will consider a request by Comcast for the higher rates, but the council has power over only 16 cents of an increase costing the average cable subscriber at least $3.

The FCC has nearly total authority over local cable rates. Even the small portion of the rate boost that is subject to County Council approval is also subject to strict FCC guidelines.

"The County Council can't do anything," said John Maitland, head of the county's cable advisory board. "It's handled by the people in Washington, which is outrageous."

Howard's cable office has received dozens of complaints about the rate increase that Comcast began charging this month.

Most of Howard's 55,000 Comcast subscribers saw their bill for basic cable service rise from $29.60 to $32.70.Subscribers in Baltimore and Harford counties saw similar increases.

The new rate for Howard is 40 percent more expensive than a basic package of channels in 1993.

"The phone hasn't stopped ringing today," county Cable Administrator Jim O'Connor said Monday, the first business day after the new rates took affect Nov. 1.

He plans to appeal the rate change to the FCC, but he said federal regulators rarely reject cable rate increases.

Comcast officials say customers are getting their money's worth, with more channels, sharper pictures and crisper sound provided by a new network of fiber-optic cables that will reach nearly all Howard customers by the end of the year.

Customers who do not have the fiber-optic upgrade pay about $2 less each month but have fewer channels.

"The vast majority of our subscribers actually want more programming," said Jaye Gamble, Comcast vice president for the Baltimore area. "Everybody has something that they're interested in."

The typical Howard customer, says Gamble, has a basic package of 70 channels and at least one premium channel such as HBO or Showtime, which are not getting more expensive in the rate increase.

But some customers say they would prefer fewer channels and lower prices.

Cliff Harrison, a retired Ellicott City clergyman, says he watches Maryland Public Television, some local broadcast stations and the Orioles on Home Team Sports.

"We don't watch television that much," said Harrison. "Heck, why should we have to pay for somebody else's big spread of channels?"

Chris Merdon of Ellicott City, a Republican candidate for County Council, says he doesn't have cable, even though he's a member of the county's cable advisory board.

"I'd love to have CNN," Merdon said, "but I just won't pay that amount of money for it."

Consumer groups, which in September asked the FCC to freeze cable rates for one year, say the growing array of channels is not the reason for the rising prices. They say the culprit is the absence of local competition.

The huge investments in wiring and other hardware keep companies from challenging established providers.

Satellite television services do not have the technology to undercut the prices offered by local cable systems.

"Basically, they don't have to worry about competition," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. "There's a lot of upward room for price increases, and they'll take it in 7 to 10 percent gulps every year."

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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