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Menino seeks basic cable rate curbs

Presses FCC amid Comcast hikes

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / January 18, 2012
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Basic cable rates in Boston have increased by more than 80 percent in the three years since a price-control agreement with the city expired, prompting Mayor Thomas M. Menino to once again seek permission to regulate this cable service.

Menino said in a statement yesterday he is again asking the Federal Communications Commission to restore regulatory authority to Boston, the second such request in less than a year. His latest request comes after the Globe reported yesterday that Comcast was again planning to raise prices for its minimal cable offering, this time by 4.9 percent, to $16.58 a month.

“We’d like them to give us the tools to help protect consumers, especially those working families who are disproportionately affected,’’ Menino told the Globe yesterday.

Comcast had previously raised basic cable rates nearly 19 percent just 10 months ago, prompting Menino’s first request to the FCC for power to act against the rising prices.

The FCC declined to comment yesterday, saying it has Menino’s original request under review.

The only other major cable provider in Boston, RCN, is not planning to increase its basic cable prices, but its basic package is still more expensive than Comcast’s. RCN’s basic cable rate is $17.50.

Basic cable service is just that: Customers get about two dozen channels that include their local networks and public television stations, and a handful of lesser-known channels, such as community access and municipal providers. About 15,000 Comcast customers in Boston get basic cable service.

But the many more customers who buy Comcast’s bundled packages can also expect to pay higher rates. Comcast said its overall average monthly bill for the Greater Boston area will increase 2.9 percent. But Comcast spokeswoman Doreen Vigue said the majority of Comcast customers will not be affected immediately because they are locked in to multiyear packages and promotions.

She said the increases are being driven by “the impact of higher programming costs and increased operating expenses.’’ She declined to comment on Menino’s request for oversight of Comcast rates.

Comcast, with 1.8 million customers in Greater Boston, is by far the largest provider of cable in Boston. It has 165,000 customers in the city. By comparison, RCN serves 61,000 customers in Massachusetts, and around 16,000 in the city.

But RCN customers can also expect to see higher bills beginning next month, when promotional packages and discounts begin to expire. The average increase for affected customers will be between $2.50 and $7.75 per month.

Verizon’s FiOS cable service, which is available in suburban Boston but not in the city, is not raising rates, said spokesman Phil Santoro.

As for satellite TV services, DirecTV has said it will raise rates 4 percent for its customers nationwide, starting in February.

Competitor DISH Network instituted a rate freeze until early 2013, after a price hike in February 2011 of $5 a month for most packages.

Boston originally was able to regulate basic cable prices until Cablevision, Comcast’s predecessor, petitioned the FCC in 1997 to find that with the presence of RCN, the city effectively had competition and no longer needed rates regulated.

The FCC deregulated basic cable prices in Boston in 2001. That same year, however, the city negotiated an agreement with Cablevision’s successor, AT&T Broadband, that capped increases for basic service at 6.5 percent annually until May 2008.

Since that agreement has lapsed, Comcast has raised basic rates dramatically - by 13.8 percent in 2009, 29.1 percent the following year, and 18.8 percent last year.

In his original request to the FCC, Menino was joined by US Senator John Kerry. Kerry’s office said yesterday it is still pressing the FCC to allow Boston to control basic cable rates, and encouraging the agency to develop a broader response to continually rising cable prices, given that competition has not driven prices down.

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

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