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Mississippi Lawmaker Eyes Reg Shift

Upset over rising cable rates and spotty service performance, a Mississippi state lawmaker is seeking to transfer basic-cable regulation from local governments to a three-member commission in the state capital.

The bill would give the state's Public Service Commission in Jackson the right to oversee cable on the basis that state authorities are best suited to address consumer complaints in multiple jurisdictions.

"It has not been working [at the local level]. Out rates are going up and service is not getting any better at the local level," bill sponsor Sen. Scottie Revette Cuevas (D-Pass Christian) said. "I think [the PSC] is looking out for everybody in the state."

A handful of states have supplanted the local government as cable regulator, either in whole or part. They include Connecticut, New Jersey, Hawaii and Massachusetts.

According to cable industry and Federal Communications Commission lawyers, nothing in federal law prevents a state from replacing local franchising authorities to ensure that basic-tier rates are reasonable. No level of government regulates the price of higher tiers.

Consumer backing

The effort in Mississippi dovetails to some extent with a lobbying effort by leading consumer groups underway in Washington, D.C. The Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union favor legislation that would shift all oversight of cable rates from the FCC to state regulatory commissions.

Federal legislation is necessary because many local governments are incapable of regulating large cable companies in terms of personnel and finance, said CFA research director Mark Cooper. He also endorsed placing local cable issues in the hands of state commissions.

"It makes sense to get a body that has the heft on public policy issues to deal with the new reality of cable corporate America. These are not mom-and-pop systems anymore," Cooper said.

Cuevas, serving his eighth year in the state senate, claimed that rates in his Gulf Coast community, served by Cable One Inc., have risen sharply in recent years with no increase in channels.

When cable service is interrupted, Cable One has not been speedy in repairing the break, he said.

Cuevas said he was troubled that his cable rates were much higher than those in neighboring communities. Channel lineups were comparable, he said.

"Tell me what the difference is? That is not fair to the folks in my district," he said.

A few calls to Cable One headquarters in Phoenix, Ariz., failed to garner responses to Cuevas's claims.

Cable operators assert that they raise their rates to cover channel additions and increased programming costs, and that cable as a whole faces stiff competition from the 19 million subscriber strong direct broadcast satellite industry.

"Folks don't want a satellite [dish] hanging off their houses," said Cuevas, even though DBS penetration of Mississippi TV households, at 35 percent, is the fourth-highest in the country.

His bill had a committee hearing last Thursday. In the past, that's about as far as the measure has traveled.

"I've introduced this thing for the last two years and I have never got it out of committee," Cuevas said. "This year is very strong. You've had complaints around the state."