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For now, cable TV won't cost you any less

Cable viewers got the good news first.

But two months after headlines announced $1-billion worth of rate rollbacks thanks to a new cable law, the Federal Communications Commission has pushed back not only the date consumers would see savings _ but also the amount they might have seen.

And in the meantime, lesser-known details of the act are threatening to make TV more confusing than ever.

At the heart of the controversy is time. After years of complaints about price gouging, Congress voted last October to give the FCC power to supervise the rates cable companies charge subscribers.

Unfortunately, Congress did not give the FCC any extra money to oversee the nearly 11,000 systems serving 30,000 separate franchise areas. Its staff already shrunk by cutbacks linked to the federal deficit, the FCC put people to work nights and weekends to begin the job, creating a formula for what rates ought to be.

But to enforce those rates, the commission needs about 200 more accountants, lawyers and mail handlers. It has asked Congress for $11.5-million to hire them.

"Let us get the funds and see what we can do," FCC chairman James Quello told a House subcommittee this week.

The money appears to be on its way. While it waits, however, the commission postponed enforcement of the cable act. It was to take effect Monday. Instead, to avoid a bureaucratic backlog, the FCC opted to begin enforcement Oct. 1.

That decision may save face for the commission, but lawmakers and a consumer group that helped pass the bill say it will cost subscribers cash.

By the FCC's estimate, the cable industry now routinely overcharges customers at least $1-billion a year. The three-month delay thus will cost cable subscribers about $250-million, and none of it can be recovered.

Overcharges for basic cable service can be rolled back _ or, in the case of higher tiers of cable service, refunded _ only if the cable law is in effect.

"What they've said is, "You can continue to charge these rates _ and overcharge _ until Oct. 1, with no retroactivity,' " said Bradley Stillman of the Consumer Federation of America.

He noted that the rate freeze announced in April was also fruitlessly extended.

"There's a rate freeze, but the rate freeze is 10 to 15 percent above the benchmark" rates the FCC formula calls fair, Stillman said.

House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., complained bitterly about the delay. Cable act co-author Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, called it inexcusable.

But the cable industry has no problem with waiting, said a spokeswoman for the National Cable Television Association. In fact, it's two months longer than the Aug. 1 delay several cable companies had requested.

Stillman, the consumer activist, declined to say that the commission had kowtowed to) cable operators. But earlier, the chief executive of industry leader TCI told the Washington Post that cable systems would take advantage of the commission's shorthanded status by swamping it with appeals.

And FCC chairman Quello announced the delay immediately after returning from a cable convention where system operators complained at length about confusion over the 500 pages of rules already promulgated.

"We're pleased with the delay only because there was not sufficient time to interpret the new rules and put them in effect by Monday without a good deal of confusion and disruption," said Jeff McQuinn, division president of Paragon Cable in St. Petersburg.

Stillman said the delay essentially postpones all rate relief until early next year. Officials at one Tampa Bay cable operator, Vision, have said their early calculations indicate their rates will not have to be lowered. But pending FCC clarification of its new rules, it cannot be known for certain what cable systems would be obliged to roll back their charges.

So despite April's headlines, all the cable act has done for cable viewers so far is change a few channels.

To comply with its more obscure sections, many cable systems juggled their channel lineups this spring.

And more changes may be coming, as broadcast stations exercise their new powers under the act to negotiate fees from the cable systems, which until now have been able to pass along their over-the-air signals for free. In lieu of money, the systems may offer choice dial positions, raising the possibility of further channel changes around Labor Day.

"Yes, there will be several discussions regarding channel locations," McQuinn said.

And if stations end up getting cash from cable operators ( whoalso could opt just to black out the stations), the operators would be free to ask the FCC for permission to pass that expense along to subscribers.

"It's a mess," said a Washington lawyer negotiating for several broadcast stations. "Broadcasters have been giving it away for their entire existence. And now they say we're going to give it away to half the audience, and charge the other half."