The Montgomery County Council is considering a plan to regulate Internet service provided by cable TV companies, a move praised by consumer advocates and decried by industry officials as unnecessary and illegal.
The regulations would establish customer service standards similar to those in place for cable television. Cable modem service providers would be required to answer phone calls within 30 seconds, correct service interruptions within 36 hours and pay hefty rebates if service is not restored within 24 hours.
Cable modem service is currently unregulated on the federal, state and county levels. "Montgomery County would be the first in the country to establish minimum standards for cable modem service," said Mary Beth Henry of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors. "All local governments are dealing with this issue, but no one has passed regulations yet."
The measure is aimed at Comcast and Starpower, the county's two cable providers. According to county officials, problems with modem service are second only to billing practices as a source of consumer complaints. Of the nearly 1,400 complaints filed in 2003, most regarding the larger Comcast, about 25 percent dealt with cable modem service, they said.
"We need to ensure that consumer protection standards are there and that customers are getting what they pay for," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg). "These standards protect consumers."
Industry officials say regulation is unnecessary because there are relatively few complaints about cable Internet service. They also say the proposal would unfairly target cable Internet service providers without regulating DSL, the other type of high-speed Internet service available to homes. "This is a solution in search of a problem," said Brian K. Edwards, a Comcast spokesman. "They're regulating for the sake of regulating."
The plan was scheduled to come before the full council June 29, but a vote was postponed after several council members proposed amendments, some to soften penalties for poor service. The amendments -- sponsored by council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) and Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) and Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) -- are similar to revisions proposed earlier by Comcast and rejected by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and the council's Management and Fiscal Policy Committee.
The committee yesterday opposed the latest set of amendments. "These amendments would severely weaken and, in some cases, gut the consumer protections standards," Andrews said. "Our responsibility as council members is to look out for our constituents and protect them, not Comcast."
The measure is now scheduled for a council vote July 27.
Silverman said the amendments offer a fitting compromise between the committee and Comcast. "I categorically reject that this is a weakening of anything," he said. "There's no law now, and you can't gut something that doesn't exist. To have anything would be a giant leap forward."
Yesterday, Duncan appeared to revise his position on the amendments. His special assistant, Jerry Pasternak, e-mailed council members that "the proposed amendments are acceptable" to Duncan.
Andrews accused Duncan of flip-flopping. "When the cable modem industry asks the county executive to jump, he shouldn't say, 'How high?' " he said.
Consumer groups praised the council for considering the regulatory plan. "The cable industry often want just wants to pump out the profits," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "There is an obligation on the part of your local government to ensure that you get fair service."
Comcast officials said that even with the friendly amendments, the legislation is an illegal act outside the county's authority.
Cable modem service is the subject of a battle involving all three branches of the federal government. Cable television is regulated exclusively on the local level, but the Federal Communications Commission ruled in 2002 that cable Internet access is an "information service" that falls under different regulatory standards. Industry officials say the FCC decision bars local regulation of cable modem service. Consumer advocates say the FCC decision allows local government to regulate cable modem service as a part of general consumer protection.
Complicating matters, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned the FCC decision, ruling in 2003 that cable modem is a hybrid medium -- part telecommunications service and part information service. But that decision was stayed, pending an appeal to the Supreme Court, which will decide whether to hear the case in the fall.
Congress is expected to address the issue next year when it reconsiders the 1996 Telecommunications Act.