Sanders challenges Comcast on costs (Burlington Free Press)

By Dan McLean

Thousands of Vermonters who subscribe to Comcast's cable television service are paying higher bills but getting fewer channels than last year.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has called on the cable giant to remedy the situation through price reductions or free converter boxes. At 7 p.m. today, Sanders will hold a town hall meeting at City Hall in Rutland, where many complaints to his office originated. A Comcast official will attend.

Comcast's cheapest analog package, "basic cable," now has 14 channels for Burlington customers, or three fewer than at the end of last year, Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman said. Subscribers to "standard cable" have 55 channels, or nine fewer than in December, he said. No channels have been reduced from any Comcast digital packages.

The channel reduction comes after Comcast increased prices in February, Goodman said. The number of channels cut from the analog packages varies by town.

Comcast says the changes are needed to ease a shift to digital programming. Sanders views the decreasing number of channels as another rate increase.

"I believe that Comcast is being unfair to consumers in Vermont who see, as I do, the number of channels in their analog cable packages going down without a reduction in price as a rate hike," Sanders wrote Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen on Aug. 7.

To retrieve the channels, Comcast has offered standard cable customers a converter box, free for one year. After that, the boxes will cost customers between $1.35 and $3.95 per month per television, Goodman said.

Sanders' office has tallied 279 complaints about Comcast's cutting channels.

"People are just getting sick and tried of getting ripped off by large corporations, whether it's oil companies, credit card companies or the local cable company," Sanders said Wednesday.

"This is a very profitable corporation ... and they are squeezing an elderly lady in Rutland, Vt., for a few bucks," Sanders said. "And I don't like that."

Comcast Corp. generated $1.36 billion in profit during the first six months of 2008, down 4 percent from the same period last year, according to the company's most recent earnings report.

Goodman said the analog channels needed to be dropped to allow more advanced features -- additional high-definition channels and faster Internet access speeds. "The majority of our customers already have digital cable and they are telling us pretty clearly they expect us to deliver additional enhancements," Goodman said.

One analog channel uses as much capacity as three high-definition channels, he said, noting Comcast employs more than 300 people in Vermont and has a substantial, and expanding, fiber-optic investment here.

Sanders said Comcast functions like a monopoly and is the "sole provider of cable" to 142 of Vermont's 231 cities and towns.

The senator said he supports regulating the cable industry, but hasn't decided whether he will advance legislation. "The question is whether it is politically feasible," he said.

Goodman said Comcast is not a monopoly and faces healthy competition from satellite television providers and telephone companies.

The Philadelphia-based cable company has agreed to refund $16.95 installation fees charged to people making the switch from analog service to digital service, Goodman said.

Four other requests are "still on the table," Sanders' spokesman Michael Briggs said.

Per-channel price reductions

Free boxes for people to receive lost channels

Offering the same deals to customers over the phone as online

A commitment by Comcast to hold regular meetings to address Vermonters' concerns

Asked if Comcast will meet any of Sanders' requests, Goodman said: "Comcast is participating in tomorrow night's meeting and will respond at that time."

The number of analog subscribers in Vermont is murky. "It's a question we've asked Comcast and what they say is, 'Most are digital,'" Briggs said.

Throughout Vermont, Comcast has roughly 106,000 subscribers, Briggs said, citing state data. Goodman declined to be more precise.