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Maine Operator Puts NESN on Notice

Bye bye, Bruins and adios, Red Sox. You may have just become too expensive for the cable operator in Brunswick, Maine.

MSO Susquehanna Communications has sent direct-mail questionnaires to 20,000 customers in the 11 midstate communities it serves. The mailer asks subscribers to make a choice between accepting a 9-percent rise in their full basic service rate, currently at $38.21, or losing New England Sports Network and swallowing a 3 percent rate hike, pegged to inflation.

"I face very stiff pressure on rates" from local franchising authorities, SusCom Brunswick system general manager Patrick McCormick said. "I understand the value of the programming, but I'm concerned about rates overall."

Were SusCom to drop the network, Brunswick area residents would lose access to about 150 Red Sox Major League Baseball games and 80 Bruins National Hockey League contests per year. The two teams own the cable network.

SusCom said it will use the survey to help decide whether or not to drop NESN, and that it will share the results with city regulators.

The Brunswick system is Susquehanna's only operation in the NESN footprint.

McCormick said NESN's rates have been stable for three years, but that followed "a rather substantial increase" in 1999. It will cost each basic consumer about $3.40 just to keep that one regional network.

York, Pa.-based SusCom — an MSO with 200,000 subscribers in five states — is a small operator in Maine. Adelphia Communications Corp. is the state's biggest provider, with about 200,000 customers. Time Warner Cable serves about 110,000 Mainers.

NESN did not respond to a request for comment.

NESN converted from a pay service to an expanded-basic channel in the Boston area during 2001, spiking basic rates in that region. The move was thought to have helped inspire U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to introduce a bill in May that would have restored the Federal Communications Commission's power to regulate expanded-basic rates, although Frank said that wasn't the reason.

In general, small operators have been more outspoken in blaming networks for rising programming costs, especially with respect to sports. Small-system lobbyists have begun talking openly about seeking legislative aid to combat what some of them call "OPEC" — the organization of programming extortion companies.

Last week, Knology Inc. issued a press release warning its cable subscribers in the Southeast that rate increases of 11 percent to 15 percent were coming in 2003 — and that it's evaluating channel lineups "and may have to consider dropping some channels as another way to cover the cost of skyrocketing programming fees."