Monday, April 8, 1996

Week of 04/08/1996

Just Dish-erts
-By David Matthews 2

In a move that outraged some local communities, the Federal Communications Commission recently announced their plans to lift some of the restrictions concerning satellite dish owners. The move is targeted at the newer Digital Satellite System- currently for sale through RCA, Sony, and GE, and leased through Primestar- with their smaller and more inconspicuous reception dishes. At under three feet in diameter, these dishes hardly resemble the so-called "monster dishes" of their predecessors that had earned the ire of some communities who considered them to be eyesores. After the announcement, some local community leaders objected, saying that the easing of those restrictions would once again allow homeowners to "litter" their properties and otherwise "mar" the community.

But is this the real story?

It is true that for decades some community leaders have used sometimes eccentric zoning laws to control what goes on in their neighbors' property. Everything from banning home-based businesses to determining what shade of white paint would be appropriate inside living rooms have been written into law and backed by judges who have determined that maintaining "esthetic" standards in the community outweighed the right of homeowners to maintain their own property as they deem fit.

But the FCC decision has a far greater effect on another portion of the community and to another much larger business- the cable companies.

For the past two decades, cable companies have been allowed to control their own services as they deem fit. Because they did not require monstrous reception dishes, and the cable line could easily blend in with telephone and power lines, they weren't subjected to the same limitations as the satellite companies, and thus were allowed to reach into most homes. Those same zoning laws some communities passed against satellite dishes eliminated a tremendous source of competition for the cable companies.

Because there was little or no competition or alternative to cable companies, they have been able to control what prices to charge consumers, what kind of channels would be available, and what sort of equipment upgrades would be needed. Even the attempts to "regulate" consumer costs up until most recently have been in vain as the cable companies simply found new ways to restructure their billing practices so they would comply with these new regulations. (By the way, those same cost-controlling regulations have since been repealed thanks to the Telecommunications Deregulation Law.) Consumers who were upset with the quality or the cost of their cable services were simple told it was "this or nothing."

Now, with most of those ownership restrictions lifted, more upset consumers can simply drop their cable subscriptions in favor of a satellite dish service. And depending on what kind of package they choose, the consumer will find they have a greater choice of channels and a much greater control over which channels they want their family to watch.

Of course that doesn't sit well with the cable companies, because now they will have to be something they usually aren't- competitive.

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