Report Your Neighbor, the Cable Thief

Cable companies are worried that we're stealing from them. Funny, I thought it was the other way around.

Log on to, and you can secretly inform on your friends and neighbors, "fight crime and keep your cable costs down." Thanks to the magic of the Internet, all you loyal cable subscribers out there can "lower your cable bill by anonymously submitting to the cable companies names of people you know (who) are stealing cable.

"If you know someone in your area who is stealing cable, let the cable company know about it!" trumpets the website. Write down the "name of the person you suspect," their street address, and the name of the cable company they are "stealing from." "Your local cable operator will take action, and you'll be taking a stand against crime."

Isn't it a little ironic that an industry that was given a license to steal by the federal government is worried about consumers cheating them? Nationwide, cable rates have risen 33 percent since the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The increase in the cost of cable service far outpaces inflation in every other sector of consumer goods and services.

Cable television, like rural phone service, started out as a communications marvel, a way of connecting customers in sparsely populated areas to the larger world. It was developed in the late 1940's for communities unable to receive TV signals due to hilly terrain or distance from TV stations. Cable system operators placed antennas in areas with good reception, received broadcast station signals and re-transmitted them by coaxial cable to subscribers for a fee.

Under the provisions of the 1992 Cable Act, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission to "establish rules to govern rate regulation of cable service tiers offered by cable systems in order to improve service to cable subscribers and to ensure competitive rates." And between "between 1993 and the effective date of the 1996 Telecommunications Act," according to Congressman Bernie Sanders, "the FCC's Cable Services Bureau resolved more than 18,000 consumer complaints involving more than 5,700 cable communities and ordered almost $100 million in consumer refunds."

All that changed under provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Heralded as promoting a "pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapid private sector deployment of advanced telecommunications and information technologies and services to all Americans by opening all telecommunications markets to competition" it was actually, according to Texas journalist Molly Ivins, a bill "written by the telecommunications industry, a virtual "high water mark for the lobbyists."

The 1996 Act modified the regulation of cable programming services and the rate complaint process, and terminated the FCC's authority to regulate cable television rates after March 31, 1999.

Once the FCC no longer had any authority to review rates or to investigate allegations that the rates were excessive, cable companies were freed of any restraints on rate increases, and could set their own charges for programming services and raise them at any time.

Since the effective date of the 1996 Telecommunications Act provisions, in March of l999, cable rates have risen unchecked, and cable ownership has become consolidated in the hands of a few service providers. Almost 60 percent of cable service nationwide is now provided by three cable companies.

Cable franchise operators consider themselves to be a "natural monopoly" because a cable TV provider "must make a substantial initial investment in its distribution system to serve a particular market," and is therefore entitled to exclusive rights over sales and distribution to that market. Prospective competitors would have to duplicate the distribution system to compete with an established operator for its customers, and therefore "the established operator is in a position to extract monopoly rates and profits."

This week, Congressman Bernie Sanders plans to introduce the "Cable TV Consumers Protection Act," legislation calling for the governing authority on cable television to be returned from the federal government, which is doing nothing, to the individual states. The bill "will give each State the right to decide whether and how to regulate cable television prices in its communities." It will also "impose a one-year moratorium on cable television price increases while States decide how they want to address their residents' concerns.... This bill will allow local communities to address cable consumer concerns, consistent with local telecommunications needs."

In a letter to his House colleagues, the Congressman reminded them that in "enacting the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress legislated away government's authority, at the State and local level, to effectively regulate cable television prices."

"Consumers clearly want to be able to turn to their government when they feel that monopolistic cable television providers are charging unfair prices.... If the Federal Government won't protect consumers from excessive prices imposed by monopolistic cable television companies, then States should have the right."

If you are a victim of the real cable theft, price gouging by an unregulated monopoly, contact Congressman Bernie Sanders' office and express your support for the "Cable TV Consumers Protection Act. He can be reached in Burlington, Vermont at 802-862-0697, or in Washington at 202-225-4115.

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