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Cable Bills to Reflect New Rate Structures : Utilities: As federal rules take effect, customers with the most basic service may see rates drop, while others may face increases.


Starting today, most Ventura County cable television customers will see changes in their monthly bills--the result of new federal regulations aimed at curbing the cost of basic cable service.

Rates for the lowest level of service--called "limited broadcast" or basic service--will fall by as much as $4. That service typically includes network television stations and local independent channels.

But cable companies hope to recover some of the loss by charging more for the next level of programming, called "expanded service," which includes such popular cable channels as CNN, MTV, TNT and the Discovery Channel. Companies also may charge more for premium channels like HBO.

So customers who are used to a lineup of 20 or more channels may end up paying more for their cable service. In most cases, only those opting for a bare-bones package can count on savings.

Cable companies counter that any increase will probably be offset by another aspect of the new federal regulations. The new rules require reductions in installation fees and copyright charges--a sort of tax that appears on cable bills.

And some companies said they plan to stop charging for additional outlets, scramblers and remote-control devices.

"The folks with basic services and the ones with a range of services are going to save a lot, while the folks in the middle are going to save pennies in some places and pay a little more in others," said David LaRue, president of Ventura County Cablevision, which serves about half of the county's 180,000 cable customers.

City officials were skeptical about the rate changes. They said they will be monitoring cable company rates closely for increases and hidden charges.

"I think it's really unfortunate to raise the rates now," Thousand Oaks Councilman Frank Schillo said. "They talk about a reduction in basic rates, but only 1% of the customers have that."

Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, whose rate for an expanded lineup of channels was increased a dollar a month by Jones Intercable, said residents who expected a reduction in their rates may be surprised.

"This is something that could easily get out of control," Lopez said. "We're going to keep a close eye on things."

Steve Naber, business manager for Jones, said the elimination of some fees will benefit customers. Jones is adding three channels to its basic service and one channel to its expanded lineup.

"We're giving them more channels and taking away some of the charges," he said.

"Some customers may end up paying a little more, but it turns out to be a better value."

In response to the regulations, Comcast Cablevision in Simi Valley today eliminated its $10.95 basic service entirely, leaving residents with just one cable option: a 40-channel package costing $22.39.

In Thousand Oaks, Ventura County Cablevision is adding 14 stations to its expanded lineup--and increasing the price $1.74 a month. Some cable customers are unhappy with the changes, saying they would prefer fewer channels and lower rates.

"With a VCR and being able to go and pick out any movie you want, you don't need all those extras," said Nita Rawnsley, 45, a teacher's aide who lives in Newbury Park. "I really don't need any more channels."

Robert Ashley, 30, a paramedic from Port Hueneme who subscribes to Jones, agreed.

"You end up spending a lot of money on things you don't ever watch," he said. "But I don't see a whole lot of people complaining, because people don't have a whole lot of choice."

The rate changes are a result of the 1992 Cable Act, which Congress passed amid widespread complaints that cable companies had gouged their customers with dramatic rate hikes.

The act also gave local governments the option of asking the Federal Communications Commission for the right to regulate basic rates.

In Ventura County, the cities of Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Simi Valley and Ojai have decided to apply for that authority. The cities then could examine cable company operations and make sure they have reduced rates by 10%, as the act requires.

Where local oversight is not in place, the FCC would be responsible for making sure rates were reduced. Critics have said it's unlikely the FCC will be able to adequately monitor the nation's 11,000 cable service areas.

But officials in some Ventura County cities decided against local oversight, noting that the regulatory authority applies only to basic service and would not affect many residents.

Cities have until Oct. 1 to seek regulatory control.

Under the act, future basic rate increases will be tied to increases in consumer prices. Premium channels like HBO and Showtime will remain unregulated.

Cable companies say the reductions will cut into their revenues and cause them to delay improvements.

"It's hard to say that someone is going to take away 5% to 10% and not call it serious," LaRue said. "I wouldn't call it crippling, but it is going to cut into the economics of our operation."

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