Cable provider Comcast Corp. has put cable-signal thieves on notice: Turn yourself in during a two-week amnesty program or risk fines and criminal prosecution.
Comcast said yesterday that it was conducting the amnesty program from Tuesday to Nov. 14 in markets in Maryland, Washington and Northern Virginia. The last time around - in 2003 - Comcast said about 8,000 people turned themselves in while several thousand others who knew people getting illegal service notified the company.
"We're trying to do all we can to protect our [cable system], to protect our paying customers, and we have found the amnesty program to be a cost-effective way to do that," said Brian Lynch, vice president and general manager for Comcast's Baltimore, Harford and Howard county regions.
By calling 888-COMCAST, or logging onto the amnesty Web site (www.cabletheft.com), anyone receiving illegal cable signals can become legitimate customers or have their service turned off, Comcast said. In either case, those who turn themselves in will face no legal action or be assessed past fees, Lynch said, noting that "there will be no questions asked."
While current statistics aren't available, Comcast says it prosecutes those it catches who aren't willing to negotiate settlements. In the past 12 months in the three counties Lynch supervises, fines from prosecuted cable pirates totaled more than $30,000, he said.
The company declined to provide subscription figures for this region, where it is the dominant provider.
The industry, which has an estimated 65 million subscribers and $60 billion in yearly revenue, views cable piracy as a major problem, said the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
Research last year "found that the impact of cable theft to the cable industry is $4.7 billion a year in lost revenue," said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the association, the main trade organization for cable providers. That's down from $6 billion in 2000, he said.
Local governments in the region also lose more than $7.1 million a year because cable thieves don't pay the franchise taxes that are part of every bill, Comcast said.
Piracy also can affect service on a network, industry experts say. Although most customers get digital service, each subscriber still receives an underlying analog signal that thieves can access, often by breaking into locked junction boxes and tapping the cables. That can hamper signals to subscribers, Comcast said.
Lynch said the digital signal is harder to steal, making theft of digital services such as high-speed Internet access or video-on demand uncommon.
Nationwide, however, piracy of other services is becoming problematic: Current thefts of Internet access and Internet-based phone service costs providers more than $750 million in revenue a year, according to Frank N. Magid Associates Inc., an international technology consulting firm that conducted research for the cable association.