Cable company says it will miss deadline for completing system Hundreds of homes still not hooked up WEST COUNTY -- Clarksville * Highland * Glenelg * Lisbon

December 31, 1992|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

Mid-Atlantic Cable Co. will not meet its deadline today for finishing cable system construction in the far western section of the county, said Mid-Atlantic general partner John Norcutt.

But County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, who represents western Howard, said he anticipates the council will work with the company and possibly grant another extension, rather than taking more drastic action, such as approving fines or revoking the company's franchise.

"It doesn't make good sense to fine a company that's already hurting financially as they are," said Mr. Feaga. "They simply haven't had the finances to continue at the pace they needed to."

The cable system is nearly complete in The Chase and Farside subdivisions -- two of the larger areas where construction work remains -- and will be activated soon, said Mr. Norcutt.

But Mid-Atlantic still has to install about 28 miles of aerial cable and about five miles of underground cable to connect about 600 homes west and south of Lisbon, he said.

Mid-Atlantic now serves about 2,700 customers in Howard. The company increased rates by 13 percent, from $25.15 per month to $28.31 for 49-channel service, for its Howard subscribers in October to help pay off its debt and complete work on the system.

The company is refinancing $13.8 million of its debt to pay for completion of the western Howard system and other projects, said Mr. Norcutt.

The refinancing agreement requires Mid-Atlantic to sell one of its cable systems. Mr. Norcutt said a contract for the sale has been signed, but the transaction probably won't be completed until early 1993.

"During these times, you can't borrow more, so you have to raise equity," said Mr. Norcutt.

Mid-Atlantic's original 1988 franchise agreement with the county required the company to provide cable television service to 71 subdivisions by July 1990.

The council granted an extension to the end of 1990, but the company had not constructed a cable system for 10 subdivisions by that time.

The council later gave Mid-Atlantic an 18-month extension, which expires today.

"Under the circumstances and the economic times we're in, we only had one way to go," said Mr. Feaga. "Perhaps they used us some, but we had to grant the extension and work with them."

In hindsight, the council may have erred in granting a franchise for cable television in western Howard, said Mr. Feaga.

"We were told by some [cable] competitors that [housing] density was not great enough to award a franchise. Perhaps they were right," he said.

It is more expensive to build a cable system in a rural area where houses are far apart than in denser, more urban areas. Mr. Norcutt said a recent slowdown in home building in western Howard and the slumping economy hurt Mid-Atlantic financially.

County cable administrator Jim O'Connor said Mid-Atlantic could subject to fines of $300 per day per violation of the franchise agreement if the company is found not in compliance.

Before any decisions are made, Mr. O'Connor said he must inspect the company's progress as of tomorrow to determine if it is in default and, if it is, what work remains to be done.

Until the deadline passes, the Howard County Cable Advisory Committee will not comment or make recommendations, said chairwoman Michel Gledhill.

If fines are imposed by the cable administrator's office, the council could accept or waive them, said Mr. O'Connor. The council also could revoke the franchise, or work with the company to modify the agreement, he said.

County law says cable service in western Howard must continue operating.

"Certainly Howard County doesn't want to be in the cable TV business," said Mr. Feaga. "We don't want to take over the system. We can't afford to."

Mid-Atlantic expects to complete installing within the next month a system that will allow the company to carry government, education and public access channel programs live instead of on tape, said Mr. Norcutt.

The deadline for completing that work is December 1993.

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