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Maine May Reassert Franchise Authority

Maine lawmakers are mulling changes in the state's cable regulations, including a shift in franchising authority back to the state's Public Utilities Commission.

Such a move would turn back the clock to the 1980s, when cable was deregulated and the PUC did the heavy lifting on behalf of localities. State Rep. Stanley Gerzofsky (D-Brunswick) would like to return the authority to regulate basic cable to that agency.

The legislator has told local reporters that senior citizens consider rising cable rates to be a more pressing issue than health care, prescription drugs or the potential for war with Iraq. But cable-industry representatives said centralized rate regulation is not the way to control costs.

A proposed bill would compel a cable system to notify all customers 120 days in advance of a rate increase or any change in service or product. Public hearings would be held, then the operator would have to respond to complainants in writing.

Ninety days before the final rate hike, the operator would have to give notice to all customers again.

Because of all this bureaucracy, the bill would raise cable operators' costs — and customers' rates — with no benefit to either party, said New England Cable Telecommunications Association executive vice president Bill Durand.

During a recent committee hearing on the bill, Durand noted that 68 of 110 Maine communities already regulate basic rates. Most complaints address hikes for expanded basic, he said.

Regulation of that tier is beyond the control of local or state regulators and will not be halted by the proposed bill, Durand noted.

The PUC apparently doesn't support the proposal, either, because officials estimate it would take another five employees to ride herd on the cable industry.

The bill could also become moot in many areas in short order. Direct-broadcast satellite penetration is growing exponentially in Maine, hitting 20 percent last year, Durand said. Cable operators in communities where the DBS penetration rate stands at 15 percent or higher can file for effective competition and be released from even basic rate regulation, Durand noted to the committee.

Lawmakers are continuing to work on that bill, as well as on a proposal from public-access TV backers that would add $2 to every cable bill to fund locally produced shows.

"We don't want to add costs to any [cable] bill," Durand said.