Boston Mayor Blasts Cable Charges

Boston officials apparently thought they had halted potential rate hikes after signing an agreement to transfer AT&T Broadband's cable franchise last month.

But this month, Mayor Thomas Menino has publicly railed against the operator, calling for an audit triggered by "new" charges that he asserted have appeared on consumers' bills.

For its part, AT&T claims there has been no increase in the basic-cable rate, though some fees were changed. Officials from Boston — and the rest of the MSO's New England franchisors — were notified of the fee changes in a timely manner, AT&T said.

One of the fees that irked the mayor is actually not new at all, according to information forwarded by AT&T Broadband spokeswoman Jennifery Khoury. The mayor has been criticizing a $3 charge levied by the operator to activate the "B" side of its dual cable system, used to deliver premium services to secondary TV sets.

The charge is levied per household, not per set. But according to price sheets from the system's previous owner, Cablevision Systems Corp., that particular charge has been in place for some time. The price sheets date back to 1999.

The MSO did raise the fee charged for converter boxes by $1.24. Boston consumers now pay a $2.65-per-month equipment levy.

AT&T Broadband has a registered mail receipt, signed by a City Hall employee, which indicates Boston was notified of the fee change in May, the MSO said.

At the time of that fee increase, other charges for installation and maintenance were reduced.

Menino has notified AT&T Broadband that Boston has retained KPMG Peat Marwick LLC to audit the cable company's books. He's also investigating whether the use fee is legal.

"We'll sit down and provide information to the mayor. We seek to see that all our regulators are informed," said Khoury.

The confusion may be due to the timing of the rate hike and the closure of transfer negotiations, which are related to AT&T Broadband's pending merger with Comcast Corp. The fee-hike notices went out in the last week of May.

The transfer to AT&T Comcast Corp. was concluded on July 17, on the condition that AT&T Comcast freeze basic rates through 2002 and agree to limit its fee increases to 6.5 percent a year through 2008.

Menino also seeks an analysis of rates and fees by the Massachusetts Department of Technology and Energy.