Rhode Island OKs Cox Overbuild Plan

Cox Communications Inc. has received the go-ahead to overbuild another cable operator in Rhode Island's Bristol County — the one part of the state it doesn't already serve.

The decision by the state's Department of Public Utilities and Carriers sets up a possible court fight with Full Channel TV, a small operator trying to hang on to its 12,000 customers.

A hearing examiner who reviewed Cox's case for expansion into the county — or Area 5, as designated by the DPUC — authorized the MSO's application on June 26. The ruling ended Full Channel's hopes of persuading the commission to slow Cox's Bristol rollout.

"There's no further recourse with the commission," said Eric Palazzo, assistant administrator for the agency's cable unit. "The court system is available to them, if they want to use it."

Full Channel president John Donofrio said he would appeal to a Rhode Island Superior Court, and might also file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission.

"The decision was no surprise," Donofrio said. "It was obvious that the DPUC was a pretty friendly forum for Cox."

Cox now has 270 days to apply for a construction permit. Company officials said the MSO expected to have the application ready sometime last week.

"We believe this a vote of confidence by the DPUC, and an affirmation of our belief that the residents of Bristol County deserve to be able to choose our service," Cox spokesman John Wolfe said.

Cox provides cable service to 288,072 subscribers in 34 of the state's 39 cities and towns. It already has a leg up in Bristol County, where it's been building a network under a competitive local-exchange carrier authorization granted by the state.

Coincidentally, Cox announced last week it was hiking Rhode Island cable rates an average of 5.6 percent. The highest increase will be 15.2 percent in East Providence, where consumers pay $3 less than in most areas. The increases will give Cox a uniform basic rate statewide of $37.99.

Citing "clear evidence" that Cox's entry into Area 5 would be "in the public interest," hearing examiner John Spirito ruled that the company's offer to provide the same number of public, education and governmental (PEG) access channels as the incumbent was sufficient to warrant approval.

In a toughly worded ruling, Spirito said it was "doubtful that Full Channel genuinely supports the notion of any cable television competition in Area 5."

Spirito noted that the public had spoken "en masse" in favor of Cox. Among the supporters was Bristol Town Council chairman Richard Ruggiero, who insisted that competition would "make for better service for my constituents."

Full Channel apparently attributed a different meaning to the public's comments, Spirito said, since it continued to maintain that "no voice beyond Cox has been heard in favor of the petition."