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Panel may have say in cable TV

Residents soon may have some say about spiraling cable television rates.

The City Council decided Tuesday night to form a panel of residents to study rate increases and set standards for customer service. Council members said they want more control over TCI Cablevision.

"Right now, you're stuck if you have a problem with your cable. There's nowhere to turn," said council member Jon Macdonald, who has shepherded the plan of regulating rates since he went to a cable seminar last month in North Carolina. "This will allow for open communication between the community and the cable company."

TCI Cablevision of Pinellas County Inc. would be required to justify raising rates for basic service if the Federal Communications Commission approves the city's request to become a regulator. TCI has some 2,500 subscribers in Oldsmar.

Mayor Jerry Provenzano said the city must be careful.

"We realize it is a private company, and you can't regulate them out of business," Provenzano said. "The bottom line is cable is not a necessity. They have to be able to make some money."

This year, the FCC wrote new rules ordered by Congress giving local governments the right to monitor cable rates as well as impose stricter guidelines to protect consumers against the whims of cable companies.

Tuesday night, council members adopted minimum standards for customer service already approved by the FCC. Among them are rules requiring cable companies to answer telephones for complaints 24 hours a day and to open their offices on some evenings or weekends.

Customers no longer would wait at home all day for a repairman under another rule requiring the cable company to set four-hour windows for appointments. New subscribers also would be connected within seven days of asking to establish service.

The city's Cable Service Board could decide whether to impose rules even more stringent than the FCC's minimum standards for dealing with customers, Macdonald said.

And the board would decide what happens to cable operators who violate the rules _ whether to impose fines, order refunds or reduce the length of the cable company's 15-year contract with the city, he said.

One thing the board could not regulate would be cable's content. Only the FCC can do that.

The city's request to manage rates was supposed to be sent to the FCC on June 21, but the federal agency last week delayed accepting applications until October.

The FCC does not have the staff yet to put in place the new cable rules, said Jennifer Manner, an FCC attorney in Washington, D.C. "We have no money," she said.

The FCC also has set limits for cable rates, using a complex formula in more than 500 pages of new policy designed among other things to reduce fees by 10 percent in most areas.

But TCI Cablevision expects rates to remain the same in Oldsmar _ about $10 for 16 or 17 channels of basic service, said TCI General Manager Scott Brown. New rates using the FCC formula were to be announced this week for Oldsmar, he said, but the FCC delay has given the cable company more time.

Brown said the refigured rates should be disclosed in August. Under the FCC rules, Oldsmar's cable board would not begin reviewing rates until the next time TCI seeks an increase, he said.

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