WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after Congress passed a law to restrain cable television fees, a blame game has erupted among lawmakers, bureaucrats and industry officials over why fees have not been held in check by a measure one lawmaker had hailed as "the most important consumer victory in 20 years."
On Tuesday, members of the Federal Communications Commission appeared before a congressional panel to face criticism over the fact that the rules they implemented in connection with last year's cable reform act have not produced anywhere near the $1 billion in rate savings the FCC promised consumers last spring.
Some lawmakers blamed the FCC for not being tough enough on the cable industry, while others blamed the very notion of rate regulation. The FCC commissioners, saying they lacked sufficient staffing, blamed the complexity of the law given them by Congress.
Cable industry representatives did not get to speak, but the industry has opposed the new law all along.
Although the evidence cited at the hearing was anecdotal, several lawmakers complained that cable companies across the nation are raising rates. Some frugal viewers with the most basic service are paying sharply higher fees, they said, while well-heeled subscribers with comprehensive cable service face little or no increase.
The commissioners' appearance before the House subcommittee on telecommunications and finance comes less than a week after 130 members of Congress wrote the FCC that they were "deeply concerned" about cable rate increases. No one knows the extent to which the complaints are justified, but the FCC is conducting a rate survey of top cable companies to analyze fees and determine how much the rates have changed and in what direction.
"I am very puzzled by the explanations being offered by cable operators for the large numbers of rate increases," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee. "If cable operators have instituted rate increase that are not justified by costs, the FCC must eliminate these kinds of abuses."
Members of the subcommittee and the FCC all agreed Tuesday that competition--which the new cable law also promotes--is the best form of regulation. But several said that in the short term they worry that the cable rate rules, detailed in a 400-plus-page FCC manual--aren't slowing rate increases.
In one dramatic example culled from Cable World magazine and cited at the hearing, the monthly cable bill at the $26-million Aspen estate of Prince bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia will reportedly drop at least $400 because the new law bars cable operators from charging for extra cable outlets--a considerable charge in the Prince's 15-bedroom home.
But in nearby Rifle, Colo., where most homes have only one or two TV sets hooked up to cable, subscribers will pay more because the cable company that serves the area raised the charge for expanded basic cable service to the new legal limits.
* FIRST AMENDMENT ISSUE
Supreme Court to decide if government can determine what channels a cable company must carry. D2.