Maine Eyes Change in Cable Law

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Maine lawmakers are mulling changes in the state's cable regulations,
including a shift in franchising authority back to the state's Public Utilities
Commission.

Such a move would turn back the clock to the 1980s, when cable was
deregulated and the PUC did the heavy lifting on behalf of localities. State
Rep. Stanley Gerzofsky (D-Brunswick) would like to return the authority to
regulate basic cable to that agency.

The legislator has told local reporters that senior citizens consider rising
cable rates to be a more pressing issue than health care, prescription drugs or
the potential for war with Iraq. But cable-industry representatives said
centralized rate regulation is not the way to control costs.

A proposed bill would compel a cable system to notify all customers 120 days
in advance of a rate increase or any change in service or product. Public
hearings would be held, then the operator would have to respond to complainants
in writing.

Then, 90 days before the final rate hike, the operator would have to give
notice to all customers again.

Because of all this bureaucracy, the bill would raise cable operators' costs
-- and customers' rates -- with no benefit to either party, New England Cable
Telecommunications Association executive vice president Bill Durand said.

During a recent committee hearing on the bill, Durand noted that 68 of 110
Maine communities already regulate basic rates. Most complaints address hikes
for expanded basic, he said.

Regulation of that tier is beyond the control of local or state regulators
and will not be halted by the proposed bill, Durand noted.

The PUC apparently doesn't support the proposal, either, because officials
estimated that it would take another five employees to ride herd on the cable
industry.

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