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Changes are coming for Bresnan cable television subscribers.

Cablevision, the New York company that bought Bresnan Communications last year for $1.37 billion, plans to announce some changes to its cable service this spring. The company promises a better signal and more choices as the company continues its migration from analog to digital television.

But some customers are already chafing at what they think is an excuse to raise rates and reduce services.

Jim Berg, a retiree from the Heights, approached the City Council a few weeks ago, wondering if the changes already announced by Bresnan amount to a rate increase that would violate the company’s franchise agreement with the city.

While regulated more at the federal level, cable companies still negotiate franchise agreements with cities like Billings. Each year, the city receives a franchise fee equal to 5 percent of the company’s gross revenues. That annual fee now tops $1 million a year for the city.

“I’m just trying to get by on a senior citizen’s income and it just irritates me,” Berg said. “They signed an agreement with the city saying cable TV wouldn’t go up. What’s the problem with honoring the agreement?”

Cablevision and the city both agree that the franchise agreement doesn’t prohibit the company from raising rates or changing service. The company just can’t raise rates and blame it on the franchise agreement. The agreement includes other parts, like regular support for Community Channel 7, the local access channel available to subscribers.

But Berg’s complaint may be followed by others, since the company plans to pull channels away from its most basic cable package, which costs about $23 a month, while introducing more pricey options, like an optimum broadcast basic package for $25 a month. In letters to the city, company officials said existing customers will be grandfathered into their current prices and packages.

Cablevision officials declined to provide more specifics on the changes, which they said will be announced in the coming weeks.

By as soon as April 26, the Weather Channel and the Discovery Channel will move from basic cable to expanded basic, while the Home Shopping Network and Univision will replace them in the basic package. The TV Guide Network will be replaced with a simple channel guide that no longer provides shows.

Not counting high-definition channels, basic cable runs from channels 2 to 22, while expanded basic runs from channel 23 to about channel 63. Expanded

basic cable costs about $63 a month.

Other channels, like C-SPAN, the Travel Channel and Turner Classic Movies, have already gone digital-only, which means people with older televisions need a set-top converter box provided by the company. The box is free for a year and about $7 a month after that. In a memo to the City Council last October explaining the coming changes, city officials said the box would cost less than $1 a month.

Dick Clark, a City Council member who also wondered about the price changes, said there’s not much the city can do to help people like Berg.

“I think (the city) dropped it, because there are some other complicated things in that contract that could get drawn in if we start pushing them around too much,” Clark said. “After I went back and looked at it, I think they have every right to raise the rates if they want to.”

Bresnan salespeople have been going door to door recently, asking customers if they’d like to upgrade their current services. Last June, in a conference call to talk about Cablevision’s purchase of Bresnan, Cablevision Chief Operating Officer Tom Rutledge said his company wasn’t planning on raising Bresnan’s prices, but he also mentioned that Cablevision generated more than $450 per home per year while Bresnan’s cash flow was roughly $250 per home per year.

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Contact Matt Hagengruber at mhagengruber@billingsgazette.com or 657-1261.

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