Cable rates to rise in area Comcast subscribers face up to a $3.10 increase as of Nov. 1

'We're entering a new era'

Average boost is 6% for Harford, Howard, Baltimore Co. viewers

Regulation

September 11, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Comcast is raising cable television rates -- 10.4 percent, or an extra $3.10 per month, in some cases -- for most of its nearly 300,000 customers in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties.

The new rates, which take effect Nov. 1, are 37 percent higher than cable charges five years ago. Full standard service, which includes all but premium movie channels, will cost from $30.79 to $33.49 per month in the three counties.

But Jaye S. Gamble, Comcast Corp. area vice president, said comparisons with 1992 are misleading because the company now offers double the number of channels in the full standard service package and also includes Home Team Sports, for which it once charged separately.

"The average subscriber will see an increase of about 6 percent," he said, adding that the majority of people get not only the full standard package, but one or more premium channels that range in cost from $10 to $15 a month. Rates for the premium channels are not changing.

In a letter to all subscribers to arrive with October bills, Gamble said most rates are rising "to maintain the investment we have made in bringing you an increasingly high standard of service."

That refers to the cable company's much ballyhooed $100 million fiber-optic upgrade that is expected to enhance picture and sound, enable digital programming and allow for more channel capacity.

"We are taking a risk," Gamble said about investing in the newer technology, since Comcast's "nonexclusive" contract with Baltimore County means that other companies can compete for cable subscribers.

Among the complex rate changes:

In Harford County, rates for the 50,000 Comcast subscribers will rise from $30.54 to $33.49 a month. Basic service, however, will drop to $6.63 per month from $6.75.

In Howard County, where there also are 50,000 subscribers, those with fiber-optic service will see their monthly rates increase to $32.70 from $29.60. Rates for subscribers who have the older, coaxial cable will increase to $30.79 from $28.27. Basic service, meanwhile, will increase to $10.94 from $9.99.

In Baltimore County, which has about 198,000 Comcast subscribers, the rates for full standard service will rise to $31.47 from $29.03 for those with coaxial cable. They will increase to $33.17 from $30.22 for those with fiber-optic cable. The roughly 1,000 subscribers who get the most basic service will see their rate drop by 21 cents per month, to $8.04.

The rate changes are part of an annual ritual.

"We're entering into a new era with cable television," said Baltimore County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat who is the County Council's chief cable franchise negotiator.

Each August, the company can file with the Federal Communications Commission for new rates that take effect Nov. 1, though they are subject to review by different local and federal government agencies, according to federal law.

This year, for example, Comcast is raising rates for subscribers who get so-called "expanded service" and even more for those who get "Value Pak," which includes three Turner Broadcasting channels, Sci-Fi, Bravo and the History Channel.

Another 8 cents

But when it came to basic services, the Baltimore County Council's Telecommunications Panel negotiated an additional 8-cent reduction below what Comcast already had planned.

The changes come at a time when cable companies are struggling to keep up with technol- ogy and to keep competitors at bay.

Comcast is close to agreement on a new 15-year franchise with the Baltimore County government, Kamenetz said, though the agreement will not give Comcast exclusive rights in the county.

The 8-cent rate reduction negotiated by the county may not sound like much, panel Chairman Arvin Rosen said, but it means his group is doing its job as allowed under federal law.

Local government has the power to regulate rates only for basic service.

"If you take 8 cents and multiply it out, that's $200,000 of subscribers' money," Rosen said. "We ensured that all subscribers would end up paying what they should be paying."

'Better than nothing'

Kamenetz said: "It may not seem like much, but it's better than nothing."

The federal formulas for determining rates involve calculations of projected cost increases, inflation and other factors that could affect the company.

The formulas are so complicated that the county hired a private consultant for $15,000 to work it all out. "It's only by going through the process that you find out what the amount is," Rosen noted.

Monthly Comcast rates as of Nov. 1

Baltimore County -- 198,000 subscribers

Full standard service:

Coaxial-cable subscribers: $31.47, up 8.4 percent

Fiber-optic subscribers: $33.17, up 9.8 percent.

Basic service: $8.04, down 2.5 percent

Harford County -- 50,000 subscribers

Full standard service

All subscribers: $33.49, up 9.6 percent

Basic service: $6.63, down 1.7 percent

Howard County -- 50,000 subscribers

Full standard service

Coaxial-cable subscribers: $30.79, up 8.9 percent

Fiber-optic subscribers: $32.70, up 10.4 percent

Basic service: $10.94, up 9.5 percent.

SOURCE: Comcast Corp.

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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