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COMMUNICATIONS : Cable Television Reform Getting Spotty Reception : Consumer groups give low ratings to new rules, saying they do not go far enough. But industry wants less government oversight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cable television viewers and operators are getting their first look at cable industry regulation under federal legislation approved last year.

Addressing a torrent of subscriber complaints, the Federal Communications Commission recently issued new cable industry standards and warned that operators who fail to comply risk losing their franchises.

Enforcement, however, has been left to municipal officials because franchises are awarded by local governments. That lack of federal oversight has prompted some consumer groups to complain that enforcement may vary from one area to another, depending on local resources.

Among the new requirements:

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--Cable installation must occur within seven days of a customer’s request.

--Cable operators must maintain a local, round-the-clock, toll-free or collect phone line, seven days a week.

--Service calls must be answered within 30 seconds at any time of day and callers should receive busy signals no more than 3% of the time.

--Customers must be notified of any changes in rates, programming or channel positions at least 30 days before the change.

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--Customer service and bill payment locations must be open during normal business hours and be conveniently located.

--If there is an interruption in service, repairs must begin within 24 hours after the malfunction becomes known.

--Repairs in the home must be performed within four hours of the time the cable company promises that the repair worker will show up.

--Customers must be allowed to buy premium channels, like HBO or Showtime, in combination with basic cable service. Some cable operators now provide service on a graduated scale, and subscribers are able to purchase premium channels only after they have signed up for a bigger, more costly, package.

Although that last rule will take effect in July for cable companies that have the technology to send such premium programs individually to customers, other operators will have up to 10 years to phase in the requirement.

Until the FCC spelled out its new rules this month, cable companies operated under a variety of service agreements negotiated with local government officials.

The rules are among the first in a series of far-reaching cable regulations the commission must issue before the end of April to meet the deadlines under the cable law, which Congress approved last year despite a veto by then-President George Bush.

Over the years, the cable industry has been accused of aggressively raising its rates and being unresponsive to viewer complaints about picture interruptions, poor customer service and other maladies. However, some consumer groups have said the latest rules do not go far enough in addressing those problems.

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“It’s a good start but the FCC could have issued more stringent requirements based on consumers’ terrible experiences over the last few years,” said Bradley Stillman, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America, a Washington-based watchdog group.

Stillman said, for example, that consumers could still face inconveniences under the new rules, such as having to take time off from work because the FCC did not require operators to give a specific time when repairmen would show up to fix cable malfunctions, although they did impose a four-hour window.

The FCC must also wrestle with regulation of cable rates and fees and with “program access” rules aimed at increasing competition by making it easier for direct satellite broadcasters and others to have better access to video programs.

Earlier this month, the FCC gave television stations and cable systems until mid-June to work out deals on another part of the cable law, the “must carry” provision. It gives broadcast stations the right to demand that their programming be carried by cable operators.

But the rule is being challenged in federal court by several cable operators, who contend that it violates their First Amendment rights by allowing the government to determine what broadcasts cable operators must carry. They also say the rule gives broadcasters an unfair competitive advantage because advertising on local broadcast stations will also be seen by a far larger cable audience.

The cable industry, which has been trying to stem greater federal regulation, insists that it has become more responsive to customers. In addition, the expanding industry is launching a public relations counteroffensive by emphasizing its national and local impact on the economy.

The Southern California Cable Assn., for example, released a study asserting that the local cable TV industry contributed $2.4 billion to the five-county Southern California regional economy in 1991.


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