Fighting a battle they could not win, members of the Carroll County Cable Television Committee approved the rules for lending their community access channels back to Prestige Cablevision.
County AttorneyCharles W. Thompson Jr. advised committee members yesterday that federal rules prohibit them from withholding the channels from the company.
"(Mark Tauber, an attorney versed in cable law) advised us that we have no authority to withhold their right to use them," Thompson said. "If the federal law does not say that expressly, it does imply that if the channels are free, the cable company is entitled to use them."
Under the provisions, Prestige -- or any other cable company -- would apply to the county and towns for use of a channel.
Although the information cannot be used in making a decision, Prestige mustdisclose how long the channel will be borrowed, the company's cost in providing the channel, the proposed cost to subscribers, market studies on adding the channel, and other information on how the company decided to offer a particular service.
"This is an information device, rather than a regulatory device," Thompson said. "We hope by including this information in the application, the public can make a determination whether Prestige is treating them fairly and react as theyfeel is appropriate."
Channels can be lent for no more than a year, an arrangement that is automatically renewed if neither party dissolves the agreement. If municipalities want to regain the channel, they must give the company 60 days notice.
But the fact that lendingthe channels is endorsed under federal law didn't make the decision any easier.
Committee members debated the issue behind closed doors for about an hour before voting to accept the proposal they will take back to the municipalities for approval.
"The mayor and councilare against giving any of the channels to Prestige because we feel Prestige has not provided service that is inexpensive enough for most people to enjoy it," said James Schumacher, Sykesville's town manager.
Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown agreed.
"Just so the public clearly understands that this is not necessarily what we wanted todo," he said. "If there was a way to hold on to the channels, I would hold on to them until hell froze over or until Prestige came acrosswith something to benefit the public."
Nevertheless, the agreement does retain a bit of control for the county and towns. Before a channel is turned over to Prestige, the company must prove that it has met all the terms of the franchise agreement. If the terms are not met-- and the committee has yet to determine that -- Prestige must draft a plan to meet those terms for the panel.