Since Congress deregulated the industry in 1996, rates have gone up by 53 percent.

Under pressure from Mainers to do something about rising cable rates, Sen. Olympia Snowe has come up with her own subscriber solution.

Her plan – which would allow people to buy themed packages of channels – was offered up this week in Washington, where the Senate’s Commerce Committee has been meeting with cable industry leaders.

“In Maine, cable rate increases were between 7 percent and 10 percent last year alone for two major providers,” said Snowe in a prepared statement. “While I hesitate to look to regulation to solve problems that could otherwise be solved by business negotiations, these are unacceptable numbers.”

Snowe’s plan is a compromise between the cable industry, which she hopes will make changes on its own, and lawmakers who believe prices are swelling beyond reason.

“With the cable industry unable to address the concerns of the customers they are supposed to serve, this issue is ripe for congressional action,” said the Maine senator.

Sen. John McCain, the committee’s chairman, is calling for a pay-per-channel form of cable service. Under his plan, subscribers would be allowed to pick from the channel line-up, paying only for those they want.

“I go down to buy a loaf of bread,” said Sen. McCain, R-Ariz. “I don’t have to buy broccoli and milk to go with it.”

Since Congress deregulated the industry in 1996, cable rates have increased by 53 percent while inflation has risen 19 percent. Cable operators said the jump reflected higher programming costs, more channels and system improvements such as rewiring to provide digital TV.

A plan like McCain’s could be catastrophic to cable companies, said Michael Edgecomb, Adelphia’s government relations manager for central Maine.

Companies such as Adelphia, which serves most of central and western Maine, pay fees to channels based on how many subscribers are plugged into a station’s programming, not who’s watching. Cable companies use a similar formula to set advertising rates.

Snowe’s plan suggests that the companies offer new tiers of programs, now offered in the expanded basic group of channels.

For instance, Adelphia subscribers in Lewiston-Auburn can buy 16 channels for $15.95. The next level of programming is an expanded basic group. It sends out more than 70 channels at a rate of $45.90 per month.

Snowe would create a middle ground. Someone who loves movies, news or sports could subscribe to bundles of 15, 20 or 25 channels.

Hopefully, the charge would be less than the current expanded basic price.

“This is fair warning: If you don’t do something about it, we will,” said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., addressing cable executives Thursday. “There is a point where people will rebel. They’re going to holler at us and we’re going to take it out on you.”

About 85 percent of American households receive their television service from cable or satellite providers.

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