- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

Counties and cities that broker their own cable service deals in the Washington area are worried that recent efforts to shift control to the state and federal levels would hurt customer service and local programming.

Passed by the House last week, the Communications, Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006, known as the COPE Act, would create a national franchising system in lieu of the local franchises that currently exist. The Federal Communications Commission would be in charge.

“It’s not a very good day for local government and it’s not a good day for consumers,” said Marilyn Praisner, vice president of the Montgomery County Council.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Thursdaywill review its own, broader version of the House bill.

A major role of the local cable administrative offices is to act as an intermediary between consumer and cable provider when a complaint can’t be resolved. If a national franchising system is established, local officials question the federal government’s ability to handle the detail and quantity of the complaints, which include unrestored construction sites, missed appointments and billing errors.

For example, Comcast is required to report customer calls, including complaints, to Arlington County, according to Rob Billingsley, the county’s cable administrator. The county tracks calls made to Comcast and the county.

“To do so at a state or federal level would be just an unbelievably monumental task,” Mr. Billingsley said. “I don’t know how they would do that.”

Mr. Billingsley said in 2005, Comcast received 103 calls from customers, including some from the county.

Alexandria received an average of 2.58 calls per month between August and May, according to Jacqueline Levy, cable television and consumer affairs administrator.

The District of Columbia has received 212 customer service calls since Jan. 1, according to Marcella Hicks, consumer services manager for the Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications.

Montgomery County received about 2,200 calls in 2005 regarding both Comcast and RCN’s service, said Margie Williams, program manager in the Office of Cable and Communication Services. The calls were mostly about Comcast because it serves more of the county.

Rose Williams Boyd, director of citizen assistance for Alexandria, said the customer service role would be “difficult at best” for the FCC.

Officials worry that a federal franchise would not require cable providers to service an entire geographic area. James D. Brown Jr., executive director of the D.C. Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, said in an e-mailed statement his concern is that providers will “choose the neighborhoods they want to serve while bypassing other neighborhoods completely.”

While the bill claims anti-redlining measures, Ms. Williams Boyd said this was a worry for her, too.

Local officials say the House bill may take funds away from the public, educational and governmental channels that make up local programming, called PEG channels, as well as the fiber network that allows for communication between all government buildings and schools, called an institutional network or I-net.

Mr. Brown said that the bill likely would decrease the amount of franchise fees paid to local communities, which will then deprive communities of funds for PEG channels and the I-net.

In Arlington County, for example, Mr. Billingsley said the agreement with Comcast requires that 1 percent of the cable provider’s gross revenue from the county funds the county’s public access channel. Arlington also receives grants to fund its five other PEG channels, as well as the I-net.

Under the House bill, however, cable providers would be able to fund both PEG channels and the I-net with 1 percent of gross revenue. Local governments would not be able to negotiate additional funds.

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