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Antietam defends cable fees

August 02, 2002|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

The average Antietam Cable Television customer will pay $36 more a year with new rates that went into effect Thursday.

Programming rates are the reason for the latest rate increase, said Cindy Garland, Antietam Cable's director of marketing. Programming rates are the prices cable companies pay to carry national cable networks on their local systems.

In the last year, programming rates have gone up 20.5 percent for many of the popular networks, according to a letter Antietam Cable sent to customers about a month ago. Those rates have increased by as much as 58 percent in one year for some sports services.

Antietam Cable officials have asked programmers if they can put sports channels on a separate tier so only people interested in those programs have to pay for them, but the answer has been no, Garland said.

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"It's not in the best interest of the sports service so they won't sign a contract allowing us to do that," Garland said.

Chris Murray, Internet and Telecom counsel for the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Consumers Union, said skyrocketing programming costs are "the same line that they feed consumers all over the country" when cable companies issue rate increases.

Murray said those costs are often offset or more than offset by increases in advertising and broadband Internet revenue.

He said an "easy solution" would be for cable companies to offer a la carte programming so consumers only pay for channels they want.

Garland said programmers won't allow Antietam Cable to offer channels a la carte.

As for ad and Internet revenue increases covering programming increases, Garland said that may be true for national cable operations, but not for smaller systems like Antietam Cable.

As of Thursday, Antietam Cable's limited basic service went up from $10.87 a month to $11.15 a month. Standard basic service went up from $17.63 to $20.35 a month.

Approximately 36,000 of Antietam's 38,000 customers subscribe to limited and standard basic cable services, Garland said. Standard basic provides 43 additional channels, including CNN, ESPN, MTV, TNT, TBS, Comcast Sports Net, The Discovery Channel, The Weather Channel and American Movie Classics.

There are no new channels with the latest rate increase, although Antietam started offering four new channels after the last rate increase in August 2001, Garland said.

The rate for Home Box Office also went up, from $11.95 to $12.95 a month. All other rates remained the same.

The average monthly rates for cable TV have increased 44.7 percent from February 1996, when Congress approved deregulation in the cable industry, to June 2002, according to Consumers Union, the nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports. During that time period, inflation rose 16.5 percent.

Antietam's average monthly customer rate increased 39 percent, from $20.51 in January 1996 to $28.50 in June 2002.

Antietam has raised its average customer rate, either limited and/or standard basic, on seven dates since January 1996, the month before deregulation was approved. On two of those dates the limited basic rate was not raised, but the standard basic rate was, Garland said.

Also, in 1996 Antietam Cable conducted a major upgrade to its system, Garland said. Fiber-optic lines were installed to provide two-way service for Internet and digital services.

In mailers to customers, Antietam Cable claims to have the lowest monthly cable rate in the Tri-State area.

However, the rate listing provided that compared Antietam to other local companies' rates as of June 20 reported rates for two cable companies and one satellite company to be higher than the rates those companies said they charge.

According to Antietam's comparison, it offered the lowest monthly standard basic service rate in the area at $31.50.

Adelphia offers a similar package to its customers in Sharpsburg, Keedysville and Frederick County, Md., for $30.99 a month, according to company rate schedules. Antietam listed the rate for that area at $33.99. Garland said the lower rate is probably for areas that have not had their services upgraded or channel offerings expanded.

Tele-Media Company offers a similar package to its customers in Hancock, Berkeley Springs, W.Va., and Great Cacapon, W.Va., for $30.45 a month. Antietam listed the rate for Hancock at $32.01, which includes tax. Antietam's $31.50 rate does not include tax.

Garland said it's tricky to compare rates among cable and satellite systems because of hidden costs and different channel packages. In compiling its comparison, Antietam tried to compare "apples to apples," she said.

For example, the $37.98 a month rate DISH Network charges includes a 100-channel package for $31.99 a month and network channels for $5.99 a month. Garland said it does not include a $4.99 a month rate for WB and UPN, which Antietam included in listing DISH Network's comparable rate at $42.97 a month.

Mike Ward with Sound FX Satellite, said the DISH Network price of $37.98 does include the local WB and UPN channels.

Antietam Cable is owned by Schurz Communications Inc., the company that owns The Herald-Mail.

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