County Council votes to take over regulation of cable company on Sept. 1


The Harford County Council has voted unanimously to become certified by the Federal Communications Commission as the regulating authority for Comcast Cablevision of Harford County beginning Sept. 1.

Being certified will allow the council to regulate rates for basic service and equipment of any cable company large enough to be considered a monopoly in its jurisdiction.

Comcast, with 43,000 subscribers, would fall under that authority. Clearview CATV, with about 5,000 subscribers, would not be regulated.

The vote came Tuesday evening on a resolution introduced by President Jeffrey D. Wilson in January after months of discussion about the potential effects of recent changes in FCC regulations.

To become certified, the council must file a form issued by the FCC confirming that it is the local franchising authority. Certification becomes effective 30 days after the form is filed, said Mary Kate Matanoski, cable administrator for Harford County.

Certification will allow the County Council to review and approve Comcast's charges for its limited basic service and associated equipment. That includes charges for broadcast and government-access channels, installation, converter boxes, additional outlets and remote controls.

The county will not oversee rates for Comcast's satellite channels, such as CNN and MTV, which the FCC will continue to regulate. It also will not regulate rates for premium channels, such as HBO, which will remain outside federal and local control.

As the regulating authority, the council will review Comcast's basic rates to ensure they are in line with benchmark rates, or ceilings, established by the FCC. It also will review and, after a period of public comment, act on any requests by Comcast to raise rates or equipment charges.

If the council had voted against certification, Comcast's basic service and equipment would have remained unregulated.

The Sept. 1 date was a compromise among council members.

Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C, who has championed certification as the only protection consumers will have against unfair cable charges, wanted the council's authority to go into effect May 15, when a freeze on cable rates instituted by the bTC FCC last April will be lifted.

"We have proceeded extremely cautiously," she said. "This issue has been around more than a year. I think we should certify on the date the rate freeze is lifted."

May 15 is also the date the FCC's recently ordered 7 percent rollback of benchmark rates is scheduled to take effect, said Ms. Matanoski.

That reduction, announced Feb. 22, followed complaints that the FCC's first rate adjustment, which took effect in September, had failed to bring relief to consumers and, because of loopholes, led to increases in cable charges for 30 percent of subscribers nationwide.

But the majority of the council favored waiting until Sept. 1 to certify, noting that the FCC is still working on clarifying the 1992 Cable Act.

"I'm going to reluctantly vote for certification," said Barry Glassman, R-District D, "but my vote in no way suggests that government regulation guarantees lower rates. Competition is the only way we're going to produce lower rates for our consumers."

In other action Tuesday, the council:

* Adopted a resolution supporting a bill before the General Assembly to prohibit unfunded state mandates.

House Bill 1063, which was introduced by Harford County Del. Donald C. Fry, a District 35 Democrat, proposes a constitutional amendment prohibiting passage of laws that require local jurisdictions to perform functions without providing state funding giving the local jurisdiction the means to raise revenue for them.

* Held a public hearing on legislation to allow a new kind of cluster housing to be written into the Harford County zoning code. The three-story homes, a combination of townhouse and condominium, would be called carriage court units and would be sold individually.

The homes would have individual entrances from the outside but would share side walls and a back wall with three other residences. Outside walls and grounds of the buildings would be owned by a condominium association.

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