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Comcast raising cable prices for 2d time in 10 months

RCN customers will also see increases starting in February

Cable bills in Boston are on the rise again, just 10 months after sharp increases in fees charged by Comcast Corp. provoked both Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Senator John Kerry to request the Federal Communications Commission take action against rising prices.

Starting with next month’s billing cycle, the average bill for customers of cable giant Comcast will increase by 2.9 percent in Greater Boston. Comcast spokeswoman Doreen Vigue cited “the impact of higher programming costs and increased operating expenses,’’ for the rate hike.

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RCN Telecom Services LLC, which also provides cable service in Boston, said many of its customers’ bills will rise beginning in February. The company is not raising rates, it said in a release, but some customers will pay more as they stop receiving discounts from promotional packages that are expiring. The average increase for affected customers will be between $2.50 and $7.75 per month.

But RCN’s changes do not differ significantly from a rate increase, said Edgar Dworsky, who runs the consumer advocacy website Consumerworld.org. “In the end, they are getting extra money, through one means or another,’’ he said.

Cable price hikes offer “the perfect time to look at the competition, look at your bill, and call your current provider,’’ Dworsky added. “There may be ways to reduce your bill by going to a different provider or changing your package.’’

The average cable bill in Boston was $65 a month last year, up from $62 the previous year and $58 in 2009, according to the city. Comcast has 1.8 million customers in Greater Boston; RCN serves 61,000 local customers.

Verizon’s FiOS cable service, which is available in suburban Boston but not in the city, is not raising rates, said spokesman Phil Santoro.

As for satellite TV services, DirecTV has said it will raise rates 4 percent for its customers nationwide, starting in February. Competitor DISH Network instituted a rate freeze until early 2013, after a price hike in February of $5 a month for most packages.

A dispute over programming is behind a blackout for DirecTV customers in Boston and South Florida of programming from Sunbeam Television Corp., owner of WHDH-TV (Channel 7) and WLVI-TV (Channel 56) in Boston, and a sister station in Miami.

Sunbeam is seeking an increase in the fees paid by DirecTV to carry its programming. When a deal could not be reached this weekend, Sunbeam cut off DirecTV’s access to its programming, affecting the NFL playoff game on Fox in South Florida, as well as NBC and the CW network in Boston. DirecTV said Sunbeam Television is seeking at least a 300 percent increase in fees.

A statement on the WHDH website said it is “working hard to reach an agreement with DirecTV so that you can receive our signal again. . . . We are seeking fair market value for the transmission of our signal.’’ Sunbeam would not comment on the dispute, according to the news service Reuters.

After Comcast raised fees for cable customers last year, Menino petitioned the FCC to give the city the power to determine basic cable rates.

The next day, Kerry asked the agency to deliver a report on changes in cable TV rates in Boston and other Bay State communities.

Mike Lynch, director of Boston’s cable TV office, said that the FCC has yet to take action on the mayor’s request. Kerry’s office said it is actively encouraging the FCC to decide whether to allow the city to control basic cable rates, and is working with the agency and others on the question of what to do generally about continually rising cable prices, given that existing competition is not driving prices down.

“These are the same increases we’ve been seeing every year, year after year,’’ said independent telecom industry analyst Jeffrey Kagan. Price hikes are unlikely to stop until the cable and satellite TV industries face serious competition from new entrants, he added.

That pressure may be building, Kagan added.

He just returned from the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where a number of smart TV technologies offering expanded features and content options, including access to Internet video services, were showcased. Such products could give consumers more choices to replace or supplement cable service, he said.

“That’s going to be very appealing to customers who are sick of these constant increases,’’ Kagan said. “When customers start leaving cable, then you’ll see rates going down. But probably not before.’’

Material from Globe wires services is included in this report. D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.
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