Our Opinion: Bad FCC ruling hurts Charter customers

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The FCC Friday bought Charter Communications' weak argument for deregulating its prices and many of its Berkshire customers will surely suffer. Passage of legislation proposed by Sen. Edward Markey may be the only way to at least minimize the impact of this unfortunate decision.

In filing a Petition of Effective Competition, Charter argued that the availability of the AT&T TV NOW streaming service of television programming provides "effective competition" for the cable giant. Because Charter has no competition in much of Massachusetts its basic cable rates and regulations are regulated by the FCC.

Many Berkshire residents may be unaware of AT&T TV NOW, which is far from the player in the television broadcasting industry that Charter is. According to the clark.com financial advice website, AT&T TV NOW has been losing subscribers since overhauling its package of channels in March of this year and will raise prices in November to "reflect the cost to deliver content to our customers." It may provide an alternative to Charter but describing it as "effective competition" is a stretch, one that Charter cynically used to get around rate reductions. Many Berkshire communities will be impacted, including Pittsfield.

In a statement, Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said "Today, the FCC paved the way for a powerful cable company to increase its prices without regard to the impact on consumers." Sen. Markey, who is a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and has been closely involved with telecommunications issues since his days in the U.S. House, wrote in a letter to the FCC urging that ir reject Charter's request that "Research shows that basic service tier cable rates are 50 percent higher in unregulated communities, and Charter has explicitly stated that if the Commission grants its petition, the company plans to almost double the rate paid by consumers that subscribe to the basic service tier in some communities."

Earlier this year, the senator and a House colleague filed the TRUE Fees Act, a bill which requires program providers to include fees and other charges in the prices they advertise, allow customers to end contracts without termination fees if providers increase prices, and ban equipment fee price hikes unless improved equipment is provided. In light of the FCC decision, the senator said it is more critical than ever that Congress pass the TRUE Fees Act.

A member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Markey spoke last week before the committee of the Berkshires' loss of its ABC station out of Boston and NBC station out of Springfield, explaining that because the FCC locates the county in the Albany, N.Y. TV market Charter was able to remove the two Massachusetts stations. Sen. Markey and Rep. Richard Neal, a Democrat from the First District encompassing the Berkshires, have filed "good faith legislation" urging Charter to return these two stations. It is likely that regions of other states face this same problem, and in his request for support from the committee, the senator observed that the situation created by Charter "is a threat to the informed citizenry that a healthy democracy requires."

In light of the major victory handed to it by the FCC, Charter should give something back to the Berkshires — a part of Massachusetts since 1761 — and restore Massachusetts stations to its channel packages before the approaching election year.

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