The Cable Industry Takes A Little Heat


I'd be lying if I said I wasn't gloating over recent attempts to crack down on Howard County cable franchises.

Could there be a more universally despised segment of society than cable television companies (except perhaps for attorneys, politicians and journalists)? As one villain to another, it's good to see cable taking some of the heat.

Now that Congress has given us the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act, Howard County officials are about to wade in with a bill that would require franchise holders to provide more efficient service.

The penalty for non-compliance would be a fine, assessed daily at a rate limited to $100 or $1,000, depending on which the County Council approves.

And what would cable operators have to do?

For starters, the law would require them to install a toll-free, 24-hour-a-day access line; have trained representatives available during all hours; provide standard installation within seven working days, and respond promptly to service interruptions.

Those are but a few of the provisions, but you get the idea.

Of course, we're talking about operating procedures that would be standard for any successful business, but for a number of reasons -- not the least of which is the arrogance that comes from being a near monopoly -- the cable industry has managed to avoid them.

Two cable franchises operate here -- Comcast Cable Vision of Howard County and Mid-Atlantic Cable Co. Officials from both ++ companies object to the proposed fines, and to what they feel is micro-management of their businesses. The provision they cite most is one that would penalize them for letting a call from a customer ring for more than 30 seconds.

Not surprisingly, the franchises have found allies among the two Republicans on the County Council. Both men spout the standard mantra of their party, calling the bill an affront to free enterprise and warning that the cost of fines will be passed to consumers.

More surprising is that the county's consumer affairs administrator, Stephen Hannan, doesn't like the bill either. "It's a terrible statute," he says.

But Mr. Hannan blames the bill on the Federal Communications Commission, which drafted the federal act requiring local statutes to safeguard consumer rights. He feels the FCC rules are too prescriptive and leave no room for local officials to work with cable providers on ways to improve service.

Even though the federal law prohibits cable franchises from passing to consumers the cost of fines, Mr. Hannan feels operators will find a way to circumvent the rules. There is good reason for his belief.

Law enforcement officials in a number of states have already banded together and charged franchises with undercutting the new federal act, which was designed to bring down the cost of cable service. Instead, consumers in many states saw their cable bills rise once the act took effect this year.

In my mind, an industry predisposed to such trickery, if not outright lawlessness, is hardly deserving of a break when it comes to establishing a few rules.

The fact is, the cable industry has abused its market status and, too often, has rewarded consumer demand with shoddy service. A crackdown is long overdue.

My own personal dealings with Comcast seem to parallel the general consumer discontent.

When I moved to my current home, most of the houses on the street had yet to be built. The cable company was all too willing to install service, even though to do so, it had to run a line from my house above ground to a connection box across the street.

But when the line was consistently being sliced, the company was not only slow to respond, one representative dared to blame me for asking for service in the first place. And even though the service was sometimes interrupted for days at a time, the monthly bill was always the same.

Admittedly, these aren't major offenses. But multiply them by similar anecdotes -- and worse -- from the millions of households that have cable television service, and what you have is an industry that has plucked our collective last nerve.

And, by the way, telephones ring seven times in 30 seconds. With what we pay for cable, someone had better pick up the phone faster than that.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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