Notwithstanding a learning curve that stretches back decades, state and local officials have yet to get the hang of supplying Greater Boston with proficient, reliable, and cost-effective public transportation. Of course it's the state, not the city, that oversees the T. But if public officials still can't figure out the right price points for trolley rides and Charlie Cards, why would anyone think it a good idea to put government bureaucrats in charge of setting cable rates, too?
Not everyone agrees that mass transit ought to be a government function. But access to basic transportation is essential, even a lifeline, in a way that access to a frill like cable TV is not. Perhaps a plausible case can be made for treating rail and bus service as a public commodity, with public officials making decisions about mass-transit operations, fares, and routes. No such case can be made for Menino's blustering demand for veto power over cable-TV prices in Boston.
The mayor claims that Boston is deprived of meaningful competition when it comes to cable service. (Curiously, he doesn't seem to mind the lack of meaningful competition when it comes to mayoral elections.) But even if it were true that Comcast, with about 165,000 subscribers in Boston, enjoys a de facto monopoly, why should City Hall regulate its prices? Should City Hill also regulate the price of Fenway Park tickets? Of Boston Globe home delivery?
In fact, Comcast has plenty of competition, direct and indirect. Cable operator RCN has about 15,000 subscribers within Boston proper. There are flourishing satellite services, such as DirecTV and Dish Network. For viewers who are content with access to just the basic broadcast channels, a digital converter box will provide free over-the-air service, without requiring a subscription to anything. And for those who prefer to go online for video entertainment online, there is the burgeoning growth in web TV: Firms like Hulu, Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon are steadily encroaching on cable's turf, enabling viewers to bypass the likes of Comcast altogether and connect directly to the content they want.
Is 55 cents a day too much to charge for basic cable service in Boston? Menino is certainly entitled to his opinion. But there isn't the slightest reason to impose that opinion on a TV market pulsing with competitive pressures. If the mayor really wants "to help protect consumers," the last thing he should be meddling with is their cable TV.
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