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Cable rate jump not bad for everyone

For those who love to hate the cable company, you just got another reason.

Time Warner Cable has announced plans to raise rates again in January, by about $2 a month for basic service and the preferred value package.

But while the news will undoubtedly make some residents gnash their teeth, others are rubbing their hands in delight.

Usually, cable television rate increases are good news for owners of satellite TV stores, which have become an option for Hernando County residents fed up with the biggest cable game in town.

"I would say over 50 percent of my business is people upset with Time Warner, and they switch over," said Vicki Richards, owner of Computer Satellite Inc., a Dish Network dealer in Brooksville. "I haven't had a blast of calls, but I have had some people call and switch over because of the rate increases."

Richards has installed satellite service for about 1,000 customers in both Hernando and Pasco counties over the past several years. She said that Hernando accounts for most of her business, which has grown by 30 percent from last year.

At TCL Electronics on Cortez Boulevard west of Brooksville, business usually spikes when Time Warner's rates do.

"Every time they raise their rates, a certain amount call who have been putting up with it," said Tom Longo, the owner. Longo offers both DirecTV and Dish Network and has set up about 500 to 600 customers in Hernando County in the past five years.

"Probably only about 20 percent come over from cable (rates). The rest of them have seen commercials or read a magazine or watched something on TV about it," Longo said.

Linda Chambers, spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable, said the growth in the Tampa area means there's enough business to go around for everybody, even though she considers Time Warner service superior.

"We lose a few (to satellite providers), and we get some back," she said. "I think what's good for this area is that this whole Tampa area is a growth area to begin with, and that's good news for everybody. There's room for all video providers to offer service."

The rate increase takes effect Jan. 1, a year after the company's last increase.

In Hernando, where Time Warner has 35,000 customers, the company's limited basic service package, with channels from about 2 to 22, goes from $9.95 to $11.95. The preferred value package, with up to 80 channels, climbs from $39.25 to $41.25.

Prices for Road Runner, the fast-speed Internet access rolled out in Hernando earlier this year by Time Warner, increased from $39.95 to $44.95 in October.

The basic and preferred packages are typically reviewed on an annual basis to keep up with new programming, Chambers said.

"The increase is due to the basic increase in the overall cost of doing business," she said. "The increase . . . is not just from additional channels, but the programming costs themselves have gone up an average of about 17 percent."

New channels that have been added to the Time Warner preferred value package recently include Food TV, Women's Entertainment and ESPN Classic Sports, she said.

For a comparison to satellite prices, Dish Network is currently offering the satellite dish and receiver at a cost of $199, with free installation and about 100 channels for $9 a month for one year. That's a discount from the regular charge of $31 a month for that package.

Local channels can be added for another $5 a month. Additional televisions in the house could raise the price.

Providing local stations has proved to be a boon to satellite companies, which were permitted to do so after a change in federal legislation two years ago.

Before then, some customers were reluctant to make the switch to satellite, company representatives said.

Both company and county officials say the public's frustration with Time Warner and its dominance of the Hernando market has pushed more customers into the arms of satellite companies.

"I haven't seen the numbers, but when they call me and tell me to tell Time Warner to go to hell and that they're going to satellite, I take it to heart that that's what they are doing," said Chuck Lewis, the county's regulatory and franchise administrator.

Lewis answers the angry phone calls that pour in whenever Time Warner raises its rates. But he said there is nothing he or the county can do.

The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 says local governments and the Federal Communications Commission have no authority over rates for tiered service, which is anything above Channel 13.

The past two years, Lewis said, he has sent out more than 100 letters to potential competitors to Time Warner. But the cost to lay cable and set up the technology to compete _ hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more _ scares them away.

"To make that initial investment, the companies have taken a look here and said, "Wow,' " he said. "We haven't grown enough yet" for the cost to be worth it to other cable companies.

Some residents aren't waiting around for other cable competitors.

When Frank Otis moved back to Port Richey this summer after a year in the state of Washington, he and his wife, Charmyn, decided not to return to Time Warner, which has announced similar rate increases in Pasco County. Instead, they bought an 18-inch satellite dish for their roof.

"I made up my mind, I wasn't going to deal with Time Warner," he said. "I didn't like the rates for one thing."

There is a drawback, however, to satellite dishes, he added. "When you get a pretty good storm, you lose your signal pretty quick."

Also, owners are responsible for maintenance on the satellite equipment.

For others, even though they gripe about Time Warner and its hold on the area, they won't make the leap to a satellite.

"There are tons of channels, but it means nothing if you don't want that kind of stuff," said Lois McIntyre of Spring Hill. "I don't care if they give me a thousand channels. You can't watch that many."

_ Times staff writer Saundra Amrhein covers business and development in Hernando County and can be reached at 848-1434. Send e-mail to amrheinsptimes.com.

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