Cable bill increase fuels few objections

Though rates for service have risen since 1997, more channels provided


John Dunning spends several hours a weekend watching cable, mostly sports. But Dunning, 64, a metallurgist in Corvallis, Ore., says he has begun to think that his bill - $40 a month for about 50 channels - is high.

He toyed with switching to satellite, but he receives high-speed Internet access through his cable provider, a service that satellite systems do not offer. And "it is a bit of a hassle to switch," he said.

Dunning's attitude may not be unusual among cable subscribers. A recent report by the General Accounting Office shows that the average monthly rate for expanded basic cable service is $36.47. That is up 40 percent since 1997, when the monthly average was $26.06. And it contrasts with the rise of 12 percent in the Consumer Price Index for the same period.

Yet the comparison is not quite as stark, considering that the average expanded basic cable tier is 63 channels, compared with 48 in 1997. That may partly explain why there has been little consumer outcry over the steady increase in cable rates since the industry was deregulated seven years ago. And the expansion of satellite television has provided an alternative, particularly in rural markets, for customers seeking specialized programming such as sports.

Consumer groups argue that the public has simply given up protesting the increases because no one in Republican-controlled Washington these days seems interested in doing anything about it - a theory supported by Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who tried to preserve cable regulation in 1996 and has long been seen as a consumer advocate in communications matters.

Even if someone is unhappy about cable rates, Markey said in a telephone interview, "they can't go to the House, they can't go to the Senate, and they can't go to the president because nobody cares."

The GAO report, commissioned by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, stopped short of saying anything should be done about price increases. But it did recommend that the Federal Communications Commission continue to monitor the state of competition in the pay-television business.

Cable industry executives insist that consumers are getting value for their cable dollar. And the executives argue that much of the money from the higher rates has been reinvested in network technology.

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