There Must Be More to Life than Cable TV

As nationwide deregulation looms, Morton Towers becomes Dade's first battleground in an escalating cable war

Grossman dismisses such missives, noting that Gold Coast has always offered bulk discounts to apartment buildings. The company is merely employing a slightly different strategy at Morton Towers, Grossman explains, using the apartment complex as a test case for how to survive in the deregulated 21st Century. "As a result of the direction we're going in the future, we are conducting several price-sensitivity tests and Morton Towers is one of those tests," he sniffs. "Aventura is apparently trying to sabotage our efforts [by talking to the media]. But to us, this is only a piece of an entire plan that we have to gain intelligence and information to be better able to offer our services in the future."

Howard Weinberg, an attorney for Aventura Cable, says Gold Coast is deceptively trying to present the new prices as a limited-time-only promotion. "There's a loophole in the law for promotions," he contends. "Gold Coast wants to use the loophole as a sledgehammer to pulverize the competition. It's obvious that the minute Aventura abandons the building, Gold Coast will of course double their price. So this is not a promotion, this is an anti-competition ploy to protect their monopoly."

Weinberg and partner David Azrin have threatened to file two lawsuits if Gold Coast doesn't stop its "predatory pricing" and "disparaging advertisements." One suit would charge Gold Coast with violating federal antitrust laws and cable regulations, which require, among other things, a uniform rate structure. The second lawsuit would have grander ambitions: Azrin and Weinberg want to file a class action suit on behalf of all consumers in the Gold Coast area.

Terry Bienstock, an attorney for Gold Coast, maintains that the threatened lawsuits are groundless. "The gist of your predatory pricing claim is that Gold Coast is lowering its prices to consumers. The courts take a favorable view of this practice and are likely to recognize it as competitive conduct that benefits consumers," he wrote in a reply to Aventura's lawyers.

"It is clear to us that Aventura's threats are simply a response to Gold Coast's demand that Aventura not use the conduits and other equipment Gold Coast installed at Morton Towers," Bienstock says, referring to an earlier letter he had written to Aventura. "Wiring is the lifeblood of this business." Bienstock adds that several cable companies have successfully sued satellite companies over this issue.

Local and federal cable regulators are unsure about the possible merits of Aventura's threatened suits. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations require that a cable company charge the same price for basic service throughout its franchise area, but exceptions are made for bulk agreements. Premium services can be priced any way the vendor sees fit.

Nevertheless, FCC spokesman Morgan Broman says Aventura might have a case if it files a complaint with the agency. "Conceptually, our goal is to provide competition," he explains. "And if competition is good for the consumer, we generally come down on the side of the consumer. We have the right to look at and regulate the prices of cable programming, though, and it sounds like this falls right into our area."

If the occasion of two cable companies competing in the same neighborhood sounds unusual, it is.

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