If you're caught stealing cable in Tele-Communications
Inc.'s franchises in the city of Chicago, it isn't the operator that goes after
you: It's the city.
As part of a unique pilot program, TCI has paid $140,000 to
underwrite a program whereby the city prosecutes people that the operator has proven to be
TCI has long argued that some of the picture-quality
complaints made by consumers can be attributed to signal degradation due to illegal taps,
the total of which is estimated at 100,000 in the city of Chicago. So last year, the city
decided to take the industry at its word and assist in unplugging some of the pirates.
Here's how it works: TCI does the tap audit, and it
must double-check a location before disconnecting it and turning that address in to the
city. Chicago officials use information from the Illinois Licensing Bureau to determine
the legal resident of the address, and they send a $100 ticket to the pirate.
A member of the city's legal staff, attorney Mark
Gaynes, got so involved that he climbed poles to learn more about illegal taps. Gaynes
helped to produce a video explaining the crime to judges and stressing that piracy is not
passive, but overt.
The city is tracking down box doctors, too. One man picked
up by police called himself the "Cable Cowboy," according to his business card,
and he offered his wares in Gold Coast neighborhoods. He is awaiting trial on theft
City cable administrator Joyce Gallagher said the city has
issued 222 tickets, raising about $17,000 in fines, and it is about to begin a check of
recidivists. Officials believe that as many of 40 percent of those who have been
disconnected will hook up again. Under new city ordinances, illegal reconnections will
earn the scofflaw fines of $500 per day.
But TCI executives aren't ready to call the program a
success, nor to recommend that other operators attempt similar civic partnerships.
"This is a pilot program, and we're still looking
at this cautiously ... we will let time tell if this is as successful as we want it to
be," said Terry Pfister, spokeswoman for TCI Great Lakes Inc.
But Gallagher said she would like to expand the program,
with the support of operators. Prime Cable and overbuilder 21st Century Cable TV Inc. also
serve the city. And she hopes that the systems will get tough internally, too.
"We don't want dishonest installers let go: We
want them prosecuted," Gallagher said.