Century Communications Corp. of Southern California has
offered the city of Ventura, Calif., $1.3 million in rebates and rollbacks to subscribers
to end the squabble over rates there.
The action would cut the price of Century's
expanded-basic package to $25.07 per month, from $31.50 currently.
But the city said no.
Regulators said the operator's offer comes with the
demand that Ventura give up its current and future rights to examine rates, which is
"Our consultants say that we might be entitled to
another $2 to $2.50 [per subscriber] in rollbacks. We won't give that up," said
an angry Mayor Jim Friedman.
The city also believes, based on outside analysis, that
Century overcharges for hourly service rates and to connect previously unwired homes.
The dispute could complicate Century's franchise
renewal, which is due in October. But, more important, it could spill over onto
Century's attempt to swap systems with Tele-Communications Inc., which would give
Century a cost-effective cluster in Ventura County, Calif.
The deal should include TCI's Thousand Oaks, Calif.,
system -- which is currently taking substantial competitive hits from competitor GTE
Corp.'s Americast -- in addition to Moorpark, Fillmore, Camarillo, Santa Paula and
Friedman vowed that he would lobby against Century in every
city that it approaches for system-transfer approval if the operator does not satisfy
Ventura's rate-rollback demands.
"I don't like to bad-mouth them, but, at the
current time, they deserve it," Friedman said.
Century's offer would give a substantial rollback to
consumers for the next 13 months, said Bill Rosendahl, senior vice president of Century of
The operator is assessing the cable plant in Ventura, and
it will propose a rebuild plan at its refranchising hearing that will boost capacity to
more than 100 channels.
Improved services such as digital TV, cable modems and,
possibly, telephony are possible, Rosendahl said. Century's future plans call for an
expansion of its 630,000-homes-passed Orange County News Channel into Ventura, Los
Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, he added.
"I'm very optimistic that we can work out our
problems," Rosendahl said.
The two sides have been at odds for more than two years.
Century already charged the highest rates in Ventura County, according to the city, when
it announced in March that it would escalate them by another 6 percent.
The operator also filed a petition with the Federal
Communications Commission to challenge Ventura's rate-regulatory authority.
Even when Century volunteered to slash rates, it followed
up the action with a petition to stay Ventura's rate order.
Of the appeal, Rosendahl said, "That's the
process. The FCC is empowered to interpret the Cable Act. We're talking to the FCC
for guidelines on the finer points [of rate calculation]."
Century's cumulative actions have left Ventura
officials fuming, especially when local officials tried to argue that the system has
effective competition because of the existence of direct-broadcast satellite retailers and
other, nonoverbuilt cable operators in town.
Jones Intercable Inc. and family-owned Avenue TV Cable also
serve parts of Ventura city and county.
"That is so arrogant. That is not wire-to-wire
competition," Friedman said. "They know that they're the only game in
The city knows that it can use approval of the TCI-Century
consolidation deal as a bargaining chip, as the city of Los Angeles did so successfully in
Los Angeles city properties will be part of the proposed
swap, too, and officials there terminated a multiyear wrangle over rates because they
threatened to hold up the deal if Century didn't resolve the issue. Century's
subsidiary there, Century Southwest Cable Television Inc., will pay rebates of about $80
to 130,000 homes in the city portion of its Los Angeles cluster.
"It's not in Century's best interest to have
us as an enemy if they want to be a major [regional] player," Friedman said.
Indeed, Ventura is the county seat, so its council's
negative experiences could carry great weight with the small suburbs that will be targeted
in the swap.
Other city officials said they will watch the resolution of
the Ventura-Century battle, but they didn't want to speculate on a deal that
hadn't been formally presented to them.
No rate-issue meeting with Century is on the schedule,
Friedman said. "The ball is definitely in Century's court," he added.
Rosendahl said he looks forward to meeting with Friedman.
He added that negotiations are continuing on the terms of the TCI-Century system swap, and
a business decision will be reached in six to nine months.