Copyright 2002 Boston Herald Inc.

The Boston Herald…11/23/2002

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Comcast Corp. is jacking up prices for its 1.5 million former AT&T Broadband cable customers in Massachusetts next year, with prices generally rising by nearly 8 percent and, in some cases, by more than 20 percent.

Subscribers to the most popular cable package — called standard cable — will start paying 7.8 percent more, on average, for their monthly service, come January, Comcast officials said.

Internet customers who don't buy any other services will take the biggest hit. Comcast plans a 21 percent jump, to $57.99 from $47.95 a month.

Comcast made the price hikes, which also cover digital TV service and subscription channels, only days after closing its $9 billion acquisition of AT&T Corp.'s cable systems, making it the nation's largest cable TV operator with 22 million subscribers.

More than 90 percent of former AT&T Broadband customers get standard cable service, which includes the basic broadcast channels, plus "free" cable networks such as CNN, ESPN, Lifetime and MTV. Rate hikes vary by community, but Boston customers will see standard cable rates jump to $44.75 from $41.53.

"We're increasing the prices to reflect the increased price of doing business and the price of services, which include programming costs, technological investment, and maintenance contracts," said Jennifer Khoury, a company spokeswoman. Comcast systems serve most of the cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts, and 500,000 customers in Connecticut and New Hampshire, where rates are also slated to rise.

Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, called the 7.8 percent hike "plain old greed."

"This is what unregulated monopolists do," Cooper said. Only prices of basic broadcast channel service remain regulated. But Michael Goodman, senior analyst at Boston's Yankee Group, said rate hikes are "an annual rite of passage" for the cable industry.

Goodman said increasingly popular cable networks are charging system operators more for programming, and those costs are being passed on to consumers. ESPN has hiked charges 20 percent a year in recent years, he said, and Lifetime, now cable's most popular network, just doubled its rate.

Khoury said the company's programming costs rose 18 percent over the past year.

Cable systems argue that satellite TV services, broadcast stations and in some areas, rival cable networks such as RCN, do provide competition.

But Comcast subscribers should prepare to pay more. Other options to command heftier prices are subscription channels such as HBO, Showtime and Cinemax — each will cost about $1 more each month, as will digital cable TV service.

Eligibility for Internet access discount prices — of $42.95 a month — will expand to include those who get "basic television," Khoury said.