Menino protests cable TV rate hike

Says Comcast is hurting users

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 22, 2011

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Mayor Thomas M. Menino is denouncing cable giant Comcast for a pending increase in rates, saying the added charges would fall hard on seniors on fixed incomes and financially struggling families.

In a two-page letter dated today, Menino writes that he was especially frustrated that basic cable rates had climbed for three consecutive years, from $9.05 to $15.80. Basic cable, the lowest rung of service, provides about 20 channels.

Menino called the company’s higher rates “offensive’’ and said they were disproportionately burdening “working families during difficult economic times.’’

“It’s all they can afford,’’ Menino wrote in the letter, which his office provided to the Globe yesterday. “If you can’t find a way to make that available, particularly during these challenging economic times, then something is just plain wrong with the system.’’

Comcast will notify customers across the region this week of the increases, which will show up on their April bills. The company said the average customer’s bill would rise 3.2 percent.

Comcast, the dominant cable provider in the region, has 1.8 million subscribers in Greater Boston. The company said most customers would not see the increase because they are locked into their current rates through past promotions.

“Though we’ve worked hard to hold down price adjustments, even given the impact of higher programming costs, the average customer bill will increase by 3.2 percent beginning with customer’s April bills,’’ the company said in a statement. “These adjustments will not impact the majority of our customers because they currently receive services as part of a promotional offer.’’

Comcast said customers today receive better service, such as faster Internet connections, more high-definition channels, and more on-demand programming. Comcast’s competitors, including satellite TV providers, have also raised their rates in recent years.

Menino has been a frequent critic of the city’s cable providers, particularly when they announce rate increases. Boston officials said they cannot regulate rates, but have won concessions in previous fee disputes with Comcast.

The mayor’s office learned of the increase over the weekend and quickly penned a letter to Comcast executives. Menino also sent the letter to the leaders of congressional committees that oversee the industry, Senator John F. Kerry and US Representative Greg Walden of Oregon.

“My frustration with three successive years of double-digit basic rate increases forces me to call on Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to revisit cable rate regulation,’’ Menino wrote.

Those subscribers who have basic cable alone would see the increase, the company said. The city estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 Boston customers have only basic cable. Most have little financial wiggle room and might find even modest increases hard to handle, city officials said.

Menino and Comcast unveiled a deal this month to deliver discounted Internet service to low-income Boston residents. Residents who graduate from federally funded computer training programs, officials announced, would be eligible for broadband service for $10.95 a month for the first year and $15.95 a month for the second year.

Menino conceded that he was “a pain in the neck’’ in pushing for the deal, while a Comcast representative said, “We enthusiastically embraced his concept.’’