Round 1 Goes to City in Odd Florida Case

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A federal judge in Florida gave an initial win to the city of Weston, Fla., in its fight to trim cable costs for the community’s mandatory cable customers.

But the operator, Advanced Cable Communications, also claimed partial victory, because the ruling stripped the city of the ability to retain cable fees to fund its side of the legal fight.

Weston’s cable franchising scheme is unusual. As the town was being developed in the 1960s, no operator was willing to apply to franchise a sparsely built and populated area.

Developer Arvida Corp. built the cable plant and made mandatory subscription a part of deed requirements to ensure the cable operation’s success.

Advanced bought the cable plant in 1988, attracted in part by the guaranteed subscriber base through 2013.

The operator serves the entire community; the disputed developer’s pact covers about 16,000 of the community’s 65,000 homes.

Homeowners within the original development pay their cable bill to a foundation controlled by the Weston city council, which forwards payments to the provider.

City officials last year claimed the cable contract was the No. 1 source of municipal complaints and that consumers buying direct-broadcast satellite service were upset about having to take and buy basic cable.

While examining legal options to eliminate mandatory cable subscription, the city has challenged Advanced’s interpretation of “basic.”

Captive homeowners get a 77-channel package, at $34.59 per month.

City officials claim mandatory basic should be only 10 to 15 channels at $10.41.

The city declared last fall that as of January 2005 it would only forward $10.41 per customer to Advanced — keeping the other $24 to fund its legal challenge of Advanced’s agreement.

Advanced asked a federal judge last October to block the city’s planned action, arguing the plan violated federal cable theft laws because consumers would get channels the city wasn’t paying for.

In a March 8 ruling, Judge Kenneth Marra denied Advanced’s request for an injunction. But he also ordered the disputed $24 per month be placed in a court registry going forward and not used for Weston’s legal fees, Advanced attorney Terry Bienstock said.

The ruling did not address the merits of Advanced’s breach of contract claim, Bienstock added.

Weston had not actually followed through with the fee withholding, Advanced vice president Jim Pagano said. But other accounting changes made by the foundation have put the city $1.5 million in arrears to the cable operator, he said.