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Sanders Hosts "Town Meeting" on Cable Takeover

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BURLINGTON -- People always seem to come out of the woodwork to complain about their cable-TV rates. Maybe that's because Vermonters typically pay more than their Northeastern neighbors for a service that many consider essential. For basic channel service in Burlington, subscribers pay Adelphia $17.23 a month, compared to the

$10.25 a month subscribers pay Comcast for the same service in Manchester, New Hampshire, according to the office of Congressman Bernie Sanders.

For standard 70-channel service, Burlington subscribers pay $49.45; Manchester residents pay almost $6 a month less.

"The rates for cable TV have far, far exceeded inflation," says Sanders. "People want to know, why is it so expensive?"

Sanders will be asking that question of panelists at his upcoming "Town Meeting" on Monday, October 3, at 7 p.m. in Burlington's City Hall Auditorium. He's betting that Vermonters still have a few bones to pick with Comcast, the cable conglomerate that's poised to take over Adelphia Communications, with help from Time Warner Cable. The $17.6 billion sale, which in Vermont awaits the approval of the Public Service Board, will affect Adelphia's 100,000-plus Vermont subscribers, and will make Comcast the largest cable provider in the state. It's already the country's largest cable TV provider, with 21 million subscribers nationwide.

Sanders has invited Mark Reilly, Comcast vice president for government and community relations, to be a panelist, along with representatives from the Department of Public Service, consumer groups and municipally owned Burlington Telecom. Sanders says he wants to give Vermonters a chance to ask Comcast if rates will go up, and whether they can expect customer service to improve.

"We have a right to know," Sanders insists.

Paul Burns, Executive Director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, will also be on hand. "We're looking out for consumers, making sure they're not being ripped off," says Burns. "I think it's a great opportunity to ask what are they willing to commit to."

Another panelist, Lauren-Glenn Davitian of the CCTV Center for Media and Democracy, says there's probably not much Comcast can do about cable rates. She's more concerned about the effect this media consolidation will have on democracy and free speech. How much power will Comcast have to control what people see on TV?

Davitian points out that Comcast is also taking over Adelphia's broadband Internet business. She warns that could result in censorship of Internet content Comcast finds objectionable.

She's also concerned about the company's commitment to Vermont's 43 public, educational and government (PEG) access channels. The channels -- which air local programs, as well as footage of meetings and interviews with local officials -- are funded by mandatory fees assessed to cable subscribers. Davitian and other activists worry that Comcast will not honor its PEG commitments. Several representatives from Vermont's public access community expressed this concern at a Public Service Board hearing on the sale in July.

Comcast spokespeople have said repeatedly that they will take subscribers' concerns into consideration. At the July hearing, Mark Reilly assured the PSB that Comcast will make "substantial improvements to customer care," and he pledged to honor commitments to public access. The company has also said cable rates will remain essentially the same -- at least at first.

Residents of one Vermont town will soon have a new alternative. Earlier this month, Burlington Telecom received its Certificate of Public Good to begin offering cable service in the Queen City. Project Director Tim Nulty will be on hand at the October 3 meeting to answer questions about the city's new service, which will be available to a test group of 70 residents by the end of the year.

For cable subscribers outside the city limits, however, Comcast is it. The PSB will likely approve the company's bid by the end of the year. If anyone has any objections, now's the time to raise them.

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