Chances are, you've received this month's cable television bill and are aware that your basic monthly fee will increase by 8 percent in March.
There's a couple of things you should know about that bill.
Your basic cable rate will actually go up $1.65 a month, not the $1 implied in an explanation letter from Prestige Cable TV Inc. Your basic monthly service is rising from $20.50 to $22.15 a month.
A 3percent franchise fee, which you have paid since cable came to the county in 1984, will be listed separately. It is not a new fee. Prestige is simply separating the fee, which generates about $250,000 a year for the county and its towns, said Bill Bethune, the firm's generalmanager.
"Nobody likes to see rates go up," said Hampstead Manager John A. Riley, who represents the town on the county's cable committee. But he was particularly annoyed by the wording of Prestige's announced increase.
"It looks like the county is benefiting from the increase," Riley said. "Prestige made it look like a new fee. It's very misleading."
Bethune conceded that the notice may be misleading. But, he said, "we think our customers should know that part of their money is going to the county and the towns in the form of a tax. It's fair for the customer to see that."
Frederick Cablevision Inc.,which serves Manchester, does not collect a franchise fee. Others, such as United Artists Cable in Baltimore, have begun to list the franchise fee separately.
Since Prestige came to Carroll in 1984, county and municipal officials, as well as residents, have complained about its service.
The county has gone to court twice contending breach of contract, once because Prestige charged customers for the cableconverter box and again for its failure to finish wiring the county.
Shortly after an agreement was reached in the latter case, Prestige increased its rates 34 percent.
The most recent rate boost comes at the same time Prestige has asked the county's cable committee, composed of town and county representatives, to lend the firm channelsfor pay-per-view coverage of the Olympics.
Prestige wants to use the channels to broadcast summer Olympic events, which would be made available to customers on a pay-per-view basis. The Sykesville Town Council voted recently not to return its community-access channel to the cable firm.
"We've proposed price reductions for tiered-serviceand asked them about helping fund community-access programming," Sykesville Manager James Schumacher said. "We've gotten no positive feedback (on the proposals), so we didn't feel it was in the best interest of the citizens to release the channel."
County Attorney CharlesW. Thompson recently told the cable committee it should "look closely" to see if the terms of the county's franchise agreement with the firm have been met.
However, he has since said his office will not examine the document without a directive from the cable committee. The franchise agreement, which expires in 1999, should be reviewed by an attorney versed in cable law, he said.
"While I can do some of the work, cable law has become more complex (since deregulation)," Thompson said. "It's hard for me to say what we can and cannot do without a risk of being wrong."
Nevertheless, Thompson is concerned thatPrestige apparently doesn't provide what it offered in the franchiseagreement. Although the county had the right to demand services fromthe cable company in 1984, officials merely asked what was available, he said.
For example, basic cable in 1984 was $7.50 per month; each premium channel cost about $7.95 per month. Fees were not to be charged for remote control, and households were to be charged $1.50 per month for each additional set.
Prestige, however, does charge for remote control service -- $3.95 a month. Customers aren't actually paying for the remote but for the signal the remote relays to the television.
Installation remains free, although the franchise agreement allows for a $15 charge.
"Likening this contract to a marriage,I think we need to go to a spouse-abuse program for being abused, not for being the abuser," Thompson said.
Bethune said that Prestigehas gone beyond terms of the franchise agreement, and that the firm serves less-populated areas, such as Keymar and Detour.
Programming and other services, such as customer and technical support, have improved greatly since the cable system went on line in the county, he said. The cost of ESPN to Prestige, free in 1984, is now $10,000 per month.
"The cost for every basic channel has increased," he said.
A year ago, Prestige raised basic cable rates by 8.2 percent but promised to include American Movie Classics.
However, Bethune said Prestige hasn't been able to offer American Movie Classics because the firm has no available channels. None of the county's towns will give up its channels, he said.
"That was not a factor in (the customer's) increase," he said.
Like other firms, Prestige must cope withcost-of-living expenses: increased costs for programming, which haverisen from 5 percent to 20 percent; increases in insurance and salaries for employees and the hiring of two technical and two office personnel to meet technical and customer service needs; and the upgradingand purchase of service trucks and equipment.
Bethune offered some hope for price-weary consumers.
"Basic rates should level off," he said. "At some point, our construction costs will level off. Majorconstruction is going to begin to level off."
Bethune said the firm is still laying lines in the county. Last year, the firm placed 62miles of line in the county. The cost per mile of line, he said, is about $10,000.