R.I. Op Called on Signal Theft

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The long-simmering battle in Rhode Island between Cox Communications Inc. and independent operator Full Channel TV took an unusual twist, as the state’s attorney general charged two Full Channel employees with allegedly stealing the signal for a Portuguese channel from Cox.

According to a complaint filed last Friday, Full Channel system manager Michael McGonagle and chief engineer David Rasmussen in 2003 instructed a Full Channel employee to tap into a Cox line running on a phone pole near Full Channel’s headend in Warren, R.I.

PORTUGESE NET

The tap allowed Full Channel to steal Cox’s feed of the Portuguese channel, which originates in New Bedford, Mass., the attorney general’s office said. Cox described the Portugese Channel as a locally produced Portuguese-language channel distributed via microwave. Cox pays a monthly transmission fee to receive the microwave feed.

The channel has a mix of locally produced programming (including news) and acquired shows from Portugal. People of Portugese descent are a sizable ethnic group in the Rhode Island area.

State police were able to nail Full Channel by broadcasting the number 185 on Cox’s Portuguese channel and observing the number on the TV screen from a Bristol hotel room serviced by Full Channel. Police identified the tapping device while executing a search warrant at Full Channel’s headend.

Cox and Full Channel TV have battled in Rhode Island since 2001, when Cox began overbuilding Full Channel’s network in Bristol County.

The alleged theft of the Portuguese signal by the Full Channel employees came several weeks after Full Channel filed an application to obtain a franchise in East Providence, where it wanted to compete with Cox.

Attorney General Patrick Lynch attributed the alleged crimes to a “twisted sense of competition” between Cox and Full Channel.

“Cox Communications moved into an area once served exclusively by Full Channel, paid for the right to acquire content that would be attractive to Portuguese customers in the area and transmitted this content to win new customers,” Lynch said in a press release. “Unfortunately, instead of meeting this challenge head-on … two unscrupulous and senior-level employees made some very bad decisions over a length of time that have ended up giving Full Channel a black eye.”

McGonagle, 59 — who is known professionally as Mike Davis — and Rasmussen, 41, each face a maximum penalty of five years in jail and/or a $3,000 fine. A pre-arraignment disposition conference was scheduled for June 8.

McGonagle declined to comment.

COX WORKS WITH AG

In a prepared statement, Cox said that it would work with the attorney general’s office as the case proceeds, noting that unauthorized access and theft of services from its network “constitutes criminal activity under both state and federal law.”

Full Channel counts about 8,100 video, telephone and high-speed data customers combined in Rhode Island, according to McGonagle.

Full Channel founder John Donofrio died last August at age 78. The company is now owned by his widow, Hilda Donofrio.

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