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Rollback of Cable Hourly Fees Ordered : Thousand Oaks: Two systems are ordered to refund rate differences for installation and service. But companies deny overcharging.

August 03, 1994|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousand Oaks' two cable companies must roll back their hourly service charges and send refunds to every customer who paid inflated fees for cable installation or repair, council members ordered Tuesday.

Ventura County Cablevision, which serves 31,540 Thousand Oaks households, must slash its hourly service rate nearly in half, from $40.80 to $20.70. Falcon Cablevision must also make deep cuts, reducing its hourly service fee from $65 to just under $40.

And both companies must refund the difference to subscribers who were charged the higher service rates.

Representatives from both cable companies said they would probably appeal to the Federal Communications Commission, which has final say over cable television rulings by local jurisdictions.

Although VCC's service charge may have exceeded federal guidelines, the company has been undercharging for basic subscriptions, spokesman Johnnie Giles said. "We have provided reasonable rates," he said.

Representing Falcon, analyst Sherry Brennan said her company charges are justified. If forced to slash rates, she said, Falcon might have to begin charging customers for many services now provided free.

But several council members said the refund order was both necessary and fair.

"A lot of our population is on fixed income, senior citizens, and they're really being hurt" by the high service fees, Councilman Frank Schillo said. "Service fees eat up a lot of money."

Because Thousand Oaks is hilly and hemmed in by mountains, many residents cannot tune in television broadcasts clearly unless they subscribe to cable. And the city's dependency on cable makes rate regulation especially important, Schillo said.

"We're a captive audience here," he added.

Along with ordering the refunds, council members on Tuesday asked the federal government to investigate Falcon's subscription rates, which affect nearly 5,000 customers in northwestern Thousand Oaks.

In particular, city officials questioned Falcon's decision to remove WTBS from its basic tier and strip three other channels--TNT, Discovery and Prime Ticket--from its popular upgrade tier, known as the Cable Network Package. Subscribers must pay an extra $3.95 a month to receive those four channels "a la carte."

"We now wonder whether their a la carte system . . . (indicates they are) trying to avoid rate regulation for some of their popular channels," said Caroline Milton, the city's media services coordinator.

Tuesday's council action orders the companies to prepare a refund plan within 15 days, detailing how customers will be reimbursed--with interest--for the inflated service charges.

City officials said they have no idea how many households will receive refund checks. But in general, all customers who ordered service between Sept. 1, 1993 and July 14, 1994 will be eligible for a refund.

The refund period ends in mid-July, because the Federal Communications Commission revised its price benchmarks as of this summer to force cable companies to lower their rates still further.

Thousand Oaks can audit both VCC and Falcon's rates later this year to make sure they comply with the new federal standards.

The city regained the power to regulate subscription rates, add-on fees and service charges after Congress passed cable reform laws in 1992 following a decade of customer complaints about too little government regulation.

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