Cable television subscribers will pay more to stay tuned next year in Baltimore, Baltimore County and parts of Howard County.
The 93,500 subscribers to United Cable in Baltimore will see their monthly rates increase Jan. 1 from $16.50 to $18 for the 48-channel service.
The company will add three channels, but it also will raise the cost of the monthly Cable Guide magazine from $1.50 to $2, said Marilyn Harriss, a United Cable spokeswoman.
Also as of Jan. 1, Comcast Cablevision of Maryland will increase the monthly rate for Baltimore County's 155,000 subscribers to its 37-channel extended basic service from $19.99 to $21.50, said Stephen A. Burch, vice president and area manager.
The company also will increase the additional cost for any premium channel, such as HBO and Cinemax, from $13.95 to $14.95, and the installation cost will rise from $45.95 to $49.95.
However, he said the company has reduced the monthly fee for its basic cable, a minimum service that offers 16 channels, from $10 to $7.95.
Howard County Cable Associates, which serves subscribers in eastern portions of the county, will increase its rate Jan. 1 by $2 to $19.95 for its 36-channel package. In addition, subscribers will pay more for some premium channels, with the Home Team Sports fee increasing by $2 to $13.95.
Mid-Atlantic Cable in western Howard County increased its rates Nov. 1. The company, which serves areas between Columbia and Lisbon, raised its monthly fee for a basic 23-channel service from $10.95 to $14.95 and increased its 48-channel option from $12.95 to $20.95.
In Anne Arundel County, the most recent change came Dec. 1 when North Arundel Cable TV raised its basic, monthly subscription rate by $3 to $17.90 for 42 channels.
The company serves the northern part of the county.
In September, Jones Intercable increased its monthly fee by $2.70 to $16.95. The company, which serves a broad swath of central Anne Arundel County, offers 53 or 42 channels, depending on where subscribers live. Withing the next few months, it will provide 53 to everyone.
United Cable Television of Annapolis raised its monthly rate by $2 to $16.95 while increasing the number of channels in the basic package from 35 to 54.
Spokesmen for cable television franchises serving Harford and Carroll counties say no rate increases are planned, although Comcast's basic service package in Harford went up in May from $17.95 to $19.99 for 36 channels.
Cable officials say the rise in rates is necessary to offset increasing costs of programming and for expenses such as labor, fuel and insurance.
Mr. Burch, of Comcast in Baltimore County, said the costs paid by cable companies to major programmers like TNT and HBO will rise about 30 percent next year.
"We're paying more because we've gotten away from just buying old television shows to buying more major productions," he said.
But the rate increases have prompted some subscribers to call for more government oversight of a service that critics say is largely unregulated and faces little or no competition.
The federal government deregulated cable television in 1984, taking away any local regulatory authority over rates.
"Nobody is controlling the cable companies, or watching them to make sure their rates don't go through the roof," said Douglas
Vaughn, a Comcast subscriber from Riderwood.
Mr. Vaughn, a bank employee, watches about three hours of television each night and pays $36.57 for the expanded basic cable and HBO. His bill will rise to $39.08.
"It's just another price hike that you can't do anything about," he said.
Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission proposed new rules that could return to some areas the right to regulate basic cable television rates, although officials said it was too early to tell whether the rules would affect Maryland companies.
Cable company spokesmen insist that they face competition from other types of entertainment. The need to attract and keep subscribers ensures competitive rates and quality service, they say.
"Our competition is network television. It's the video stores, it's the restaurants and the movie theaters," said Mr. Burch. "If it was so profitable, there'd be more than one company in business in most areas."
Tom Toporovich, Baltimore County Council secretary and a liaison to the Baltimore County Telecommunications Advisory Panel, said numerous subscribers have called to complain about the increases since Dec. 1, when the notices were sent out.
The panel meets monthly to offer Comcast input on its operations, he said.
"This rate increase surprises us all and it distresses us all," said Anne Darlington, chairwoman of the panel.
"Raising the rates really creates a hardship on some people."
Cable prices rising
Prices for cable television in three areas are going up Jan. 1:
Baltimore: Rising from $16.50 to $18 a month for 48 channels.
Baltimore County: Rising from $19.99 to $21.50 for 37 channels.
Eastern Howard County: Rising from $17.95 to $19.95 for 36 channels.