- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Cable customers throughout the region must brace for another increase in their monthly bills.
Comcast Corp. said last week it plans to increase rates about 5 percent for the average Washington-area customer over the next two months. The company blames the increase on rising programming costs, expenses associated with upgrades to its cable television and high-speed Internet systems, as well as the addition of some employees.
"The rate is … a result of the rising cost of doing business in the region," said Comcast spokesman Mitchell Schmale.
The average customer in the District will pay about 4.3 percent more for service, while those in Montgomery County will see a 5.4 percent increase. The largest price spike will hit Arlington County customers, who can expect an 8.6 percent increase in their rates.
Cox Communications Inc., which operates in Fairfax County, said it plans to freeze rates until further notice in response to numerous customer service complaints.
"[M]any … customers are experiencing less than optimum service on the underperforming, 20-year-old cable plant that has yet to be upgraded," said Gary McCollum, vice president and general manager for Cox Communications Northern Virginia in a release. "With that in mind, we will not be implementing a price increase on our video service in Fairfax this year."
About half of Cox's customers in Fairfax are serviced by the older cable plant. The company is in the middle of a $500 million upgrade process, which is expected to be completed this year, Cox spokesman Scott Broyles said.
Cable rates have shot up more than twice the rate of inflation since the passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which freed cable companies from governmental regulation.
On Jan. 1, AT&T; Broadband said it would raise cable rates an average of 5.5 percent. (Comcast announced in December it will acquire it in a deal that would create the nation's largest cable company). Nationally, Cox Communications is raising its rates an average of 5 percent this year.
Such rate increases have drawn the ire of consumer groups, who don't buy the cable companies' rationale for rate increases.
"We've looked at the numbers and seen that cable companies are getting increased revenues from advertising and more revenues from special services," such as high-speed Internet, said Consumers Union Spokesman David Butler. "This revenue covers virtually all of the costs that they tend to blame for increased rates. The rate increases are just gravy for these monopoly operations."
Last week, the Consumers Union and other groups submitted an official plea to the Federal Communications Bureau to reimpose a 30 percent ownership limit on cable operators. If the FCC reimposes the limits, it would put into question the merger of AT&T; Broadband and Comcast. The merger of those two firms is expected to create one company with 34 percent of all cable subscribers.

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