News

W. Va. Wants Out of Rate-Regulating

9/20/1998 8:00 PM Eastern

The state of West Virginia has filed with the Federal
Communications Commission to be decertified as a cable regulator.

Action by the FCC, however, will only codify what is
already a fact: The state advisory board that regulated operators there shuttered July 1,
so systems in the state have been without oversight for more than three months.

Municipal officials still have the option to file to
regulate on a local basis, but interest is varied.

The West Virginia Municipal League has already held a
seminar on local regulatory authority, but since the workshop, "I haven't heard
much from the cities," league director Lisa Dooley said.

But there are hotbeds of activism. The city of Morgantown,
which has had an acrimonious history with its operator, Century Communications Corp., has
already filed with the FCC to become a local regulator.

Morgantown city manager Dan Boroff said he believes that
there are legislators who are sympathetic to the fact that a single regulatory body is
more effective and cheaper than multiple jurisdictions. He predicted that a reregulatory
bill will surface in the legislature next year.

City officials said they did not believe that the lack of
regulation would cause rate creep, but they do think that it will bring a surge in
revenues for consultants.

"I've talked to cities in other states [that are
regulators], and they've come across three different ways to depreciate a cable box.
And this is just one of the hundreds of pieces of equipment in a system," Boroff
said.

The cities will need consultants to wade through
operators' data.

Competition may also work against any great change in
pricing and packaging. According to researcher SkyTRENDS, 16.23 percent of West Virginia
households had satellite dishes as of July 1, compared with the national average of
between 8 percent and 9 percent.

Operators that serve the more than 500,000 cable customers
in the state had been governed since 1990 by the West Virginia Cable Television Advisory
Board. A 40-cent-per-subscriber fee passed through to customers funded that panel.

Cable executives also held two of the seven seats on the
board. During the past few years, however, the board "lost credibility" with
operators, because it became a political football between the state senate and former Gov.
Gasper Caperton, according to Mark Polen, executive director of the state cable
association.

When legislators passed a bill that would toughen
regulation -- in excess of federal standards, in the cable operators' judgment --
current Gov. Cecil Underwood vetoed it. Without that legislation, the cable board ceased
to exist in July.

The demise of the advisory board does not mean that the
cable business is completely without oversight: There are still state laws regulating late
fees and trigger dates; criminalizing signal theft; and dictating minimum customer-service
standards.

March