MOUNT AIRY — The public hearing was intended to give citizens a chance to air their thoughts on having a second cable television company open shop in town.
Instead, Monday's hourlong session before the Town Council became a war of rhetoric between representatives of the cable companies.
Prestige Cable TV of Maryland Inc., which serves about 900 Mount Airy residents, squared off against Frederick Cablevision Inc., whichhopes to be invited by the council to compete with Prestige.
Fourcitizens squeezed in comments.
"I can't see it (competition) having anything but a positive impact," town resident Ray Jones told the council.
After the hearing, the council voted to begin talks with Frederick Cablevision, the first step toward two-company cable competition in Mount Airy. The objective of the talks will be to forge an agreement that subjects the Frederick company to the same obligations by which Prestige is bound.
For several months, the council has considered inviting Frederick Cablevision to town, an idea spurred by what town administrators say is growing subscriber dissatisfaction over Prestige service and prices. The council reasons that competition might prod Prestige to improved performance.
Prestige charges $20.50 a month for its 38-channel "basic" service, while Frederick Cablevision charges $15.95 for 41-channel "extended basic" service. That includes Home Team Sports, a sports network for which Prestige charges $12 extra.
Frederick Cablevision also offers "minimum basic" service, giving 22 channels for $9.95 a month.
On Monday, Frederick Cablevision Vice President Robert Cole restated his company's desire to operate in Mount Airy. He cited the company's 25 years of service and vowed that Frederick Cablevision would provide all of the services Prestige is required to offer.
But Prestige representative Rick von Unwerth sounded a warning.
Von Unwerth said "overbuild" -- the industry term for a two-company system -- can lead to as many problems as it solves. As a second company begins to "wire" an area, yards are dug up, cable and utility lines are accidentally cut and residents may be inconvenienced, he said.
"(In other cases) the experiment hasnot been successful and has wound up costing subscribers money," he said. "In our view, the economics are not likely to be there."
Prestige defended its rates, saying its contractual obligations require equipment and services for local-access programming that are paid forin part by its higher rates.
Above all, Prestige says, it simply wants a "level playing field" if Frederick Cablevision comes to town.Prestige sent the town a letter outlining the requirements of its operating agreement and asking that the Frederick company be bound by similar obligations.
"We think it would be extremely unfair to havea second company come in and compete for subscribers without having equal burdens and responsibilities," von Unwerth said.
Prestige provides cable television to about 20,400 Carroll homes, including those in Mount Airy. Frederick Cablevision serves 33,602 households in Frederick County and Manchester.