March 15, 1992|By Amy L. Miller and Greg Tasker | Amy L. Miller and Greg Tasker,Staff writers

Dissatisfied with ever-rising cable television bills, Carroll's cable committee is recommending the county and its municipalities consider opening the door for competition.

The committee, made up of county and municipal representatives and citizens, voted unanimously to recommend seeking bids for a franchise agreement with a second cable television company.

"At this point, we're recommending the towns and the county let us proceed (with the bidding process)," said Howard "Buddy" Redman, the committee's chair.

"We have to create a bid proposal taking the old one and reworking it," he said.

The vote came on the heels of the committee's reluctant decision Tuesday to lend unused community-access channels to Prestige Cable TV of Maryland Inc. for pay-per-viewOlympic coverage and other programs.

It also follows Prestige raising its basic cable service rate by 8 percent beginning this month.

Committee members have expressed outrage at the increase, as well as what the committee calls the firm's misleading rate announcement, which appeared to blame part of the increase on the county's 3 percent franchise fee.

The fee had been included in the basic fee and collected by the firm; now, the fee is charged separately and calculated on the total monthly bill.

The county has a non-exclusive franchise agreement with Prestige, meaning the Georgia-based firm doesn't have sole rights to provide the service in Carroll.

Although committee members and municipal officials say they would welcome competition, it remains unknown whether it would be economically feasible for another cable firm to provide service here.

"It's something we would take a look at," said Robert Cole, general manager of Frederick Cablevision Inc., which also serves Manchester. "I don't know if it's economically feasible."

He said it may be more cost-effective for a firm like his to offer service to the towns on or near the Carroll-Frederick border, such as Taneytown, Union Bridge, New Windsor and Mount Airy.

In fact, the Frederick company was asked by the Mount AiryTown Council to submit a proposed franchise agreement. The council is studying the matter.

A spokeswoman at the National Cable Television Association, citing research done by Paul Kagan Associates in 1990, said 65 areas nationwide have cable companies competing for customers.

She said the association had no information how economically successful those firms are.

Prestige General Manager Bill Bethune said it would be unfair for firms to be able to seek franchises in just select parts of the Carroll.

"It doesn't seem fair after we spent all that money," he said. "I don't know if they can legally do that. We were granted the franchise in Carroll and were not able just tobuild in the good areas."

Frederick Cablevision is in Manchester because the firm bought a cable company there that went bankrupt in the late 1970s.

Bob Gunther of Comcast in Baltimore County said hisfirm has no plans to bid on a possible Carroll cable franchise at this time.

Taneytown City Manager Joseph Mangini Jr., a cable committee member, said seeking other bids is good for competition.

"I voted to support that," he said of the committee's recommendation. "Theimpression I have gotten from the committee and some people in the city is that there is some disappointment with Prestige."

Redman said the county and towns worked jointly in seeking bids the first timearound in the early 1980s when the agreement was awarded to Prestige. He said the process this time also would have to be a joint venture.

"There's a lot of things that have to be crossed before that happens," said Deputy County Attorney George Lehey. "It's very, very preliminary that they're looking in that direction."

He said the county would have to propose to another company a franchise agreement similar to the one with Prestige.

"We have to be fair," Lehey said. "Whether they would have to absolutely the same, I don't know. It's going to have to be fair to both parties."

The county's franchise agreement with Prestige, for instance, requires local origination of news programmings, an inter-school hookup for cable television and community access channels for the each town and the county.

"We can't go to the county and say, 'Hey, you gave us a franchise and now you're letting another company in here,' but the law does say it has to bea level playing field," said Bethune.

Manchester's franchise agreement with the Frederick Cablevision is similar to the county's with Prestige. Manchester receives a 3 percent franchise fee and has two community-access channels.

Even though many town residents are pleased with their cable service, Mayor Earl A. J. "Tim" Warehime Jr. said "competition is always good for everybody."

Lehey said his office has not drafted any bid proposals yet.

Bethune said he doubts another firm will enter a bid because of the expense of starting a cable company.

He estimates Prestige spent $14 million to $15 million to set up shop in Carroll.

"And that was seven years ago when things were a lot cheaper," Bethune said.

Prestige, for example, has spent about $15,000 per mile on labor and materials for wiring 750 miles of the county, he said.

The firm would not be able to share itsline with another cable firm, since Prestige's current services and 15 community-access channels fill the 62 channel capacity line.

Another consideration for a competing company should be the number of homes served per mile, Bethune said. Prestige serves about 42 homes per mile and about 21,200 homes countywide. Frederick Cablevision serves about the same number of homes per mile and has about 38,000 subscribers.

Bethune said that after a little more than seven years of operating in Carroll, the company is "getting ready to break even."

He said he's not sure when the company would show a profit or whether it is ahead or behind the profit schedule proposed in 1984.

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