The Montgomery County Council yesterday approved new customer service standards for cable companies that provide Internet access, a measure experts say is among the first of its kind in the nation.
Under the new law, cable companies must answer the phone within 30 seconds, complete repairs within 36 hours, and refund customers for Internet service interruptions.
"These standards will protect consumers," said council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County). "This is a step in the right direction to respond to complaints we've been hearing for some time."
The measure, which passed on a 6 to 3 vote, goes into effect immediately. The regulations were already approved by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).
Officials at Comcast, the dominant cable Internet access provider in the county, said the measure is discriminatory because it does not affect DSL, the other type of high-speed Internet service, which comes into homes through telephone lines.
"These regulations create an uneven playing field in what is already a very competitive marketplace," said Comcast spokesman Mitchell Schmale.
Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) said the new law will discourage technology companies from moving to the region. "We're sending the message that we're not open for business," he said.
Consumer advocates say the measure is necessary because of complaints against Comcast and Starpower, the county's smaller cable provider. The county's cable office received about 350 complaints last year about Internet service, most involving Comcast.
Comcast may challenge the law in court, Schmale said, to see whether the county has the authority to regulate cable modem service.
Comcast says a 2002 Federal Communications Commission decision bars local regulation of cable modem service; consumer advocates disagree. The matter is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the meantime, cable Internet service is unregulated on the federal, state and local levels.
Council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) said he voted against the measure because of the legal confusion. "It is premature to pass any regulatory legislation now when in fact we may have to come back and undo it," he said.
Praisner lauded the new standards but said they are far from perfect. The regulations only address customer service, not technical issues, she said. But Praisner added that she has no plans to address the technical standards anytime soon.
"I'm going to let this settle for a while," she said.