January 31, 2014 in City

Comcast fights FCC rate caps in Spokane area

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Read the petitions

Read Spokane and Airway Heights’ formal petitions opposing Comcast’s request.

The company that has the exclusive right to provide cable TV services in Spokane says it no longer should have to follow federal price regulations.

Comcast, which provides cable services under the name Xfinity, filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission in November, requesting that it be released from rules capping the price of basic cable service in Spokane, Spokane Valley, Airway Heights, Liberty Lake and Millwood. Each of those cities has given Comcast a franchise allowing it to be the sole cable TV provider within city limits.

“What we’re doing is essentially seeking relief from unnecessary regulations, and the only scheme we have in mind is wowing customers with Xfinity products and services,” said Walter Neary, a Comcast spokesman.

But Spokane and Airway Heights officials have filed a formal petition opposing the request.

Councilman Jon Snyder praised the willingness to fight the request.

“We don’t feel there’s enough competition,” he said.

Federal law says that cable companies that serve at least 85 percent of customers in a franchise area who pay for either cable or satellite TV must abide by a set of rules affecting price and service.

Comcast’s filing argues satellite TV now makes up more than 15 percent in those four cities, so Comcast should no longer have follow federal rate rules. In Spokane, Comcast says 15.8 percent of paid TV subscribers are using satellite service; in Spokane Valley, that number is 20.3 percent.

The city of Spokane argues that Comcast has miscalculated by including data for ZIP codes that aren’t within city limits.

Neary said Comcast is examining the city’s claims and will file a response by Feb. 18. It’s unclear when the FCC will rule on Comcast’s request.

Brian Grogan, a Minneapolis attorney who is representing Spokane in its opposition to Comcast’s request, said the basic cable rate cap is based on a complex calculation meant to ensure that basic cable customers don’t have to pay more than what they would pay if there were a competitive cable marketplace.

Neary said Comcast charges $13.39 a month for the 54-channel basic cable package in Spokane. The basic rate in Spokane Valley, Millwood and Airway Heights is $28.28. He said Comcast is complying with the rate rule, but he said he couldn’t immediately provide what the caps are for each of those cities. He stressed that only a small percentage of customers buy only basic cable.

“What we’re seeking is the freedom of the marketplace because at the end of the day what will determine our price is considering what other companies charge and what we can offer the customer,” Neary said.

Mayor David Condon said Thursday night he had not been briefed about the issue and the city attorney’s office made the decision to oppose Comcast’s request.

Grogan said that if Comcast’s request is successful the rule could affect more than basic cable customers because Comcast would no longer have to comply with other rules, such as a requirement to provide uniform prices throughout Spokane. In other words, the cable company could charge customers different rates in different parts of town.

“Without the FCC rate regulations, the city has a legitimate fear that the rates for cable television service in the city could be increased in an unfair manner,” Grogan said.


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