Cable TV officials object to base rate change

August 09, 2005|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS


A proposed increase in city electric charges is under scrutiny by a statewide cable television association that has hinted it will ask state regulators to look at whether the rate change is part of an unfair business practice.

In June, the Hagerstown Light Department asked for permission to raise its base rates by an overall 5.32 percent, which would raise revenues by about $865,000.

According to a letter submitted to the Maryland Public Service Commission, City Light is not proposing to raise the specific rate to residential customers. The last time the city adjusted its base rate was more than 14 years ago.


The base rate collects the money needed to operate City Light, including wages and administration. It does not include the cost to buy wholesale power, which is a separate cost to customers.

The Cable Telecommunications Association of Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia in July filed a request on behalf of Hagerstown-based Antietam Cable Television to intervene on the city's case. That request was granted Monday, the hearing examiner said in a voice message.

Antietam Cable is owned by Schurz Communications Inc., which also owns The Herald-Mail Co.

A message left Monday for Antietam Cable General Manager Gene Hager was not returned immediately for comment, and the cable association's attorney, John Conwell, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

According to the petition filed July 28, Antietam Cable is a potential competitor to City Light if the city-owned utility follows through with a high-tech upgrade under discussion earlier this year.

City Light last year began working to establish a broadband over powerline (BPL) service for the city-owned utility.

The service would provide high-speed, wireless Internet access via an adapter that would plug into ordinary household or business electric sockets, and would be run by an private company. Customers could subscribe to the new service as they would to any other Internet provider.

In its petition, the cable association raised a question over whether the Public Service Commission would establish safeguards "to ensure that utility ratepayers do not subsidize" activities not associated with providing electricity.

Similarly, the Public Service Commission staff will be interested to see how the new money would be spent. It's not clear yet, though, how BPL will affect the case, said Andrew Beach, the lead attorney representing Maryland Public Service Commission staff.

City Light Manager Mike Spiker on Monday declined to comment on the Public Service Commission action, saying he would not until he read the document. But he described the BPL activities as inactive and awaiting reactivation from the City Council.

Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer in a recent meeting said she had toured a BPL testing site and believed the service would offer better competition to Antietam Cable.

By granting the cable association's petition to intervene, the cable association will get the right to question witnesses, enter its own testimony and request data from City Light, Beach said.

According to a schedule issued by the Public Service Commission, written testimony is to be entered by Aug. 23, and oral testimony is scheduled in October. A final decision would be issued sometime after a public hearing.

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