Tom Menino, Cable Guy?

Posted: Jan 23, 2012 12:01 AM

Cable TV service can be purchased in Boston for as little as 55 cents a day, a burden the city's top politician regards as so unjust that he is demanding the legal power to override it.

Mayor Thomas Menino spends a lot of time seething over cable fees. When Comcast, Boston's largest cable provider, announced last winter that the price of its basic package would rise to $15.80 a month, Menino excoriated the company's "offensive" rate as proof that "something is just plain wrong with the system." In May, he filed an "emergency petition" with the Federal Communications Commission, seeking "immediate" authority to regulate cable rates -- the better to shield subscribers "from Comcast's market power."

Last week the company upped the monthly cost of its lowest tier of service to $16.58, and the mayor insisted once again that he be empowered to set basic cable rates in Boston. Is this self-aggrandizement? Heaven forfend. Menino says his only wish is "to help protect consumers."

While the mayor was expostulating over the price of cable TV last week, the MBTA was holding the first of 22 (!) planned public hearings on the fare increases and service cuts it proposes to close a $161 million budget deficit. The MBTA's debt is $5.2 billion, the highest of any transit system in America, and it hasn't raised fares in five years. "While local and state taxes cover about two-thirds of the MBTA budget," the Globe noted on Wednesday, that income "has not kept pace with fuel, electricity, and health insurance costs," while the T's other attempts to economize -- "selling ads and surplus property, cutting staff, refinancing debt" -- have not been enough to balance the budget.

I have lived in Boston for more than 30 years, and in all that time the MBTA has been a mess. Government officials have never been able to work out the right balance between fares charged, expenses incurred, and services provided. In addition to its seemingly perpetual deficit, the T has been plagued with antiquated equipment, incoherent work rules, lousy communication, and outlandish employee costs.

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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