Comcast could receive fines over DTV-related pricing schemes

by Kim Dixon, Reuters

Comcast Corp could be fined for its inadequate response to a Federal Communications Commission request for information on cable company policies as they switch to digital signals, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said on Tuesday.

The U.S. FCC sent letters earlier this month to about a dozen businesses -- mostly cable companies -- after receiving complaints that some are ratcheting up prices for programing packages or requiring customers to buy digital set-top boxes for fewer channels ahead of the digital switch on February 17.

Some of the companies have failed to respond completely and may face fines or other enforcement action, Martin told a panel discussing telecommunications policy in Washington.

He specifically noted Comcast's response.

"They didn't even answer the questions directly. They had a narrative," Martin said.

A Comcast spokesperson said the company would meet the FCC and noted it would have taken 1,500 man-hours to compile one year's worth of what the commission had requested.

The industry contends the FCC lacks authority to demand such information because it does not have the power to limit cable television rates. The FCC does regulate basic cable tiers and consumer notice of programing changes.

Martin and consumer groups have long complained about cable television prices rising when rates for other technologies, such as cellphones, have fallen. Cable television prices nearly doubled in the decade ended in 2005, according to the FCC.

The cable industry has said the transition of broadcast programing to digital means cable companies must also make changes requiring a new set-top box and different channels and packages.

Last month, the Consumers Union complained to lawmakers that Comcast Corp and other cable companies may be fueling growth by "reaching into the pockets of their subscribers."

The FCC letters went to Comcast, Time Warner Cable Inc, Bend Cable Communications, Brighthouse Networks, Cablevision Systems Corp, Charter Communications Inc, Cox Communications Inc, GCI Co, Harron Entertainment Co, RCN Corp and Suddenlink Communications.

Verizon Communications Inc, a telephone company that provides services that compete with cable TV, also received a letter.

U.S. television broadcast signals will switch to digital from analog on February 17 under a congressionally-mandated order to free the analog airwaves for emergency and other uses.

article originally published at http://www.reuters.com/article/industryNews/idUSTRE4AH71B20081118.

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