Cable customers sue Insight over box fees

LOUISVILLE — A group of customers is suing Lexington's cable television provider over the rental fees they pay for digital converter boxes.

The customers argue in the federal lawsuit that Insight Communications should allow subscribers to shop around for a box they can buy in order to eliminate a monthly $15.95 charge for premium services.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Louisville, is seeking to become a class action. It alleges Insight is violating antitrust law by forcing subscribers to pay "inflated" monthly rental fees for the box.

"If you or I could buy this cable box from Radio Shack or what have you, hook it up in our home and it would work, then there would be a marketplace driven by supply and demand," and prices would fall, Matt White, attorney for the plaintiffs, told The Courier-Journal of Louisville.

There are similar suits pending around the country that contend cable companies sign exclusive deals with box manufacturers so consumers can't walk into an electronics store and buy their own boxes.

Insight has 775,000 cable, phone and Internet customers in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. Its largest Kentucky markets are Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky.

The company doesn't give customers the option of buying a box from Insight instead of renting one, spokesman Jason Keller said.

Insight customer Sara Villacencio of Louisville said she would buy her own converter box if she could.

"They definitely have you in a bind," she said.

Larry Zielke, attorney for Insight, said the cable company follows existing FCC rules and isn't violating antitrust law.

The suit hasn't been scheduled for trial. A motion by Insight to dismiss it is pending before U.S. District Judge Joseph H. McKinley Jr.

Keller said the issue involved "is neither new nor is it isolated to Insight, it is industrywide."

Suits have been filed around the nation since 2008 against cable giants Comcast, Time Warner and Cox. They have been consolidated into a few multistate cases against each of those companies.

Steve Effros, a cable analyst and lawyer in Washington, D.C., said consumers are better off renting a converter box than buying one because rapidly changing technology will soon make any box obsolete.

But White said consumers should have that choice.