HIGHTOWER: Cable & Telephone Rates

It's a new year -- do you know where your cable-TV bill is?Through the roof, that's where!The typical cable subscriber now pays $36 a month, an all-time high. In 1996, TCI (Tele-Communications Inc.), the nation's biggest cable company, jacked-up its rates by 13.5 percent. Time-Warner, the second biggest, pushed its rates up by 10 percent last year. In some cities, customers saw their bills jump by as much as a third.Now comes TCI, Time-Warner and others saying, hey suckers, we're hitting you for another 7-percent jump this month. As one Wall Street analyst understated it: "The rate hikes border on aggressive," With an increase of some 20 percent in a single year, I'd say they border on "Gouging," wouldn't you?Why are they doing this? Because they can.In 1992, Congress took away from your local government the power to regulate cable rates, saying there should be uniform, national regulation. But then, a year ago, the new Telecommunications Act took effect, and it totally deregulated the rates that these cable monopolies charge us. Congress and the White House alike claimed at the time that the "Magic of the Marketplace" would make regulation passe, that competition from telephone companies would force the cable operation to hold-down or even lower rates.Of course, magicians don't perform magic -- they perform illusions, and all we got was the illusion of competition -- plus skyrocketing rates. Indeed, last year AT&T raised its rates by more than 10 percent, too, and both the phone companies and the cable systems have pretty much agreed NOT to compete with each other for the forseeable future.What a deal for them: no competition and no rate regulation. Essentially, the Telcommunications Act declared open season on us ratepayers and the companies are making a killing off of us.

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