This monopoly game has gone on long enough

"So, your cable TV rates are going up again, you're mad as heck and you're not going to take it anymore. Who ya gonna call? The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission? Sorry, but local cable television operators answer to no one. Their rates can soar and their service stink, and you have no avenue of redress. What little oversight there is rests with the distant Federal Communications Commission in Washington D.C., neutered by the shears of deregulation and inherently indifferent to local complaints."

  • Monday, February 7, 2000 7:00pm
  • News

“So, your cable TV rates are going up again, you’re mad as heck and you’re not going to take it anymore. Who ya gonna call? The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission? Sorry, but local cable television operators answer to no one. Their rates can soar and their service stink, and you have no avenue of redress. What little oversight there is rests with the distant Federal Communications Commission in Washington D.C., neutered by the shears of deregulation and inherently indifferent to local complaints.We mention this as our own local provider, Northland Cable Television, threatens to sue the city over a new 6 percent excise tax levied on its service, which it says violates the terms of the franchise agreement by which it does business in this community. What they aren’t saying is, the validity of that agreement has been under dispute for several years, and city officials contend that Northland isn’t living up to its end, either. Now is a good time to finally shake out the truth, and to pull the plug on the cable television monopoly.We are not being highbrow snobs here, hoping to rid the world of the dubious influence of TV. We are subscribers to top-tier cable packages ourselves, and spend as much time as the next household suckling at what writer Harlan Ellison termed the glass teat.Nor are we going to debate the merits of Northland’s service. Company officials routinely trumpet their ongoing upgrades of lines, the addition of new channels and what have you. Moreover, they say, their seemingly annual rate hikes are driven by the cable networks themselves – the popular A&E channel, for example, reportedly costs Northland 25 percent more to provide this year than last.We will note that industry-wide, cable rate hikes consistently outpace inflation. And we think that’s part of what’s driving Northland’s ire over an excise tax it now shares with other local utilities. Somewhere, in a smoke-filled boardroom, shareholders are afraid that when they pass the 6 percent tax on to subscribers, some might cash out and go buy satellite dishes. Now that satellite outfits can carry local television stations as part of their programming, one great stranglehold cable companies have on local markets may loosen up. What might come next – competitive pricing? Mercy, what a concept.Are we thrilled about the 6 percent cable excise tax? As subscribers, of course not. Nor do we begrudge the company its right to make a fair profit. But no one can say with a straight face that a franchise agreement drafted in 1970 is even remotely relevant to the landscape of today’s cable industry. New technology, new services and new revenue streams demand – for the sake of Northland, the city and Bainbridge subscribers – that a new agreement be hammered out. Some starting points might be establishment of a few services standards, and a local vehicle for consumer complaints, so subscribers aren’t at the whim and mercy of the cable system. Our power, phone and garbage outfits answer to local officials – cable providers can get used to the idea too.Besides, fair profit is a lonely term in a sphere that has yet to see actual competition. Its service may be great, or it may be crummy, but Northland Cable Television has thrived with what pretty much all of its peers around the country enjoy – an unregulated local utility monopoly. It’s hard to work up much sympathy for that.”

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