The two main cable television companies along the Wasatch Front are raising their rates - a move they say is necessary to provide better service.
But the decision may again raise arguments that cable companies, which operate monopolies, should be closely regulated by government.And officials at the Public Service Commission, which has no control over the companies, say they are bracing for a barrage of angry phone calls from cable customers. That happens every time cable rates increase.
Beginning Feb. 1, TCI Cablevision's rates will increase from $16.95 to $17.80 per month for basic service and from 40 cents to $1.45 per month for expanded basic service, including the most popular sports channels. TCI covers Murray, Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, Sandy, South Jordan, Draper, West Valley City and unincorporated Salt Lake County areas.
Insight Cablevision, which covers parts of Midvale and Sandy and most of West Jordan as well as cities in Utah County, raised its rates last month from $17.95 to $19.95 for basic channels.
Residents who want cable must go to the company that serves their neighborhood. They have no choice.
"The 85-cent increase is to cover normal increases in operating expenses. The expanded basic service level increase is to cover the increased programming costs passed on by the channels included in the service," Dan McCarty, TCI state manager. "We are also installing a lot of customer service improvements."
The improvements include a 24-hour operation to service the customers on the operation "so they can call whenever they like." That should be in place by April. Also, the company is beginning to install a fiber-optic network of main trunk-line cables throughout Utah. The benefit to the customers is that it will improve picture quality, provide more reliable services (fewer outages), and ultimately more channels will be made available to the customers."
McCarty said the first fiber will be activated by the end of January from Sugarhouse Park to the West Valley City area - serving the whole west side of the valley.
In a letter to its customers, Insight blamed the increase on rising costs and operating expenses including gasoline, property taxes and insurance rates. The letter said cable networks have raised their programming fees as much as 85 percent in some instances.
Steve Hewlett, Public Service Commission secretary, said the PSC supported a bill in the state Legislature last year that would have given the PSC control over the quality of service cable companies provide. But federal law prohibits the PSC from controlling rates.
"We do get complaints about rates," Hewlett said, noting the complaints also are connected with service. "People call and say their cable will go out for half the month and they still get charged for the service during that time. Right now these people have no place to go."
He said Congress considered a bill last year that would have allowed local commissioners to control cable charges, but the bill failed.
Some Wasatch Front mayors also are concerned about the rate increase.
"It seems to me that the rate increases have been excessive, and I am not clear on what justification the cable companies have for doing that," said Sandy Mayor Lawrence Smith. "Nobody in Sandy, however, is required to subscribe to a cable service. If they raise their rates past what is reasonable to the subscribers, the obvious recourse is to cancel their subscription."
But Smith said Sandy's position has been that "it's a free market system. It's not a basic utility. It's an entertainment function."