Council ponders cable TV regulation


The dilemma of whether to become certified to regulate cable TV rates continues to loom before Harford County.

Should the county, as the local franchising authority, file for certification with the FCC so it can have some control over its biggest cable TV company, Comcast?

Or should it allow Comcast to continue to independently set rates for its basic service, outside the authority of federal or local regulators?

County Councilwoman Theresa M. Pierno, who is spearheading the move for local control, says certification is the only way Harford countians will have any recourse in fighting rate increases.

Comcast, with about 43,000 subscribers in Harford, says the absence of county regulation will allow the cable company more flexibility in establishing charges for services and equipment.

And the customers, many of whom have seen their cable bills go up despite a recent federal law aimed at lowering them, don't know what to think.

All will have a chance to voice their concerns at a public hearing in County Council chambers Tuesday at 6 p.m.

It is hoped the hearing will shed light on a confusing issue that not only has county legislators in a quandary, but also has seen Congress and the Federal Communications Commission scrambling to fill loopholes in a law that sought to protect consumers.

Under the 1992 Cable Act, local jurisdictions must apply to regulate basic rates charged by cable companies large enough to be considered monopolies. The FCC certifies the regulating body -- in Harford's case, the County Council.

Comcast, with nearly 90 percent of the cable subscribers in the county, would fall under the new regulations. Harford's other cable company, Clearview CATV, with about 5,000 subscribers in the northern county, would not.

Certification would give the County Council authority to review and to approve Comcast charges for its "limited basic" service and associated equipment. That includes charges for carrying broadcast channels and government-access channels, such as Harford Cable Network, as well as charges for installation, converter boxes, additional outlets and remote controls.

The county would not have control over charges for Comcast's satellite service, including channels such as CNN and MTV, which the FCC regulates. It also would not regulate rates for Comcast's premium channels, such as HBO, which would remain outside federal and local control.

If local jurisdictions are not certified to regulate basic service, the federal law says charges for that service also will remain outside federal and local control.

About 50 percent of jurisdictions nationwide have filed for certification.

In Maryland, Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have begun the process, according to Mary Kate Matanoski, the County Council's legislative writer and administrator of cable for Harford County.

While the new federal regulations were designed to bring rates in monopoly situations down, closer to those in areas where competitive companies operate, they have resulted in higher bills for an estimated 40 percent of cable customers nationwide.

Ms. Matanoski said some companies, including Comcast, have managed to restructure their rate schedules and create new surcharges, while remaining in compliance with the FCC.

"Unfortunately, Congress and the FCC have allowed for several loopholes," said Mrs. Pierno.

"They said companies had to lower their rates or offer additional channels. So the cable companies offered more home shopping channels. They've just given the consumers more junk for their money," she said.

"If we [the county] don't certify, we have no authority to object to what companies do and no control over when and how much they increase their rates," said Mrs. Pierno.

As the regulating authority, the council would have to review all "basic service" rate change requests and hold a public hearing whenever Comcast requested a rate increase, she said.

But David H. Nevins, a Comcast spokesman, said certification won't necessarily mean lower cable bills.

"The rates the county would regulate have never been those that the public has complained about," he said, noting that most complaints locally were not about charges for basic service.

Comcast fears close regulation may mean an end to discounts such as free or reduced-price installation and special promotional rates Comcast routinely offers for various services.

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