Starting this month, cable television subscribers in Montgomery County, like thousands of others around the country, will find a subtle change in their monthly bills. Instead of being charged for a single package of programs, the Montgomery subscribers will see their bill divided into "basic" and "preferred" services.

Overall, Cable TV Montgomery's monthly price will remain the same, but the "basic" service -- consisting of regular broadcast and public TV and local cable access channels -- will cost $18, or almost 90 percent of the combined monthly charge of $20.45.

Why will Montgomery County's 130,000 cable subscribers pay $18 a month to receive what non-subscribers get almost all of for nothing?

The answer lies in Congress, where legislators are considering proposals to restore rate regulation in the cable TV industry after six years of deregulation.

Under both the House and Senate bills, operators would be required to offer a limited tier of service that would be subject to the most stringent rate oversight by local franchising officials and the Federal Communications Commission.

However, prices for what most people buy cable for -- MTV, Cable News Network and ESPN, for example -- would be subject to less strict regulation under a complex set of factors that will be determined by the FCC.

Anticipating the new rules, cable operators around the country have rushed in recent weeks to establish "tiered" pricing plans like the one in Montgomery County. Their strategy, cable industry critics say, is the reverse of "loss leader" pricing: charging a high basic price and very little for the frills that most people want. In Arlington County, for example, the basic service tier costs $20.95 a month, while preferred channels are only $1 more.

The new pricing strategy, say consumer advocates and government officials, subverts the intent of the cable bills, which have sought to establish an inexpensive, no-frills tier for people who simply want clearer reception of broadcast stations.

"The cable industry is doing an end run" around the re-regulation proposals, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit communications policy organization. "This is the same lesson we learned during deregulation -- that the cable companies will be as greedy as they can get away with."

Gene Kimmelman, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America, calls the pricing strategy "counter-logical" because it assigns a higher price to the programs cable operators transmit virtually for free, and a relatively low price to the programs that cost operators the most.

By setting high basic rates, Kimmelman and others claim, the cable industry is establishing a precedent to argue against a government-imposed rate rollback or to minimize the effects of a price cap.

"It is in the operator's interest to start out {basic charges} as high as possible," said Nicholas Miller, a Washington attorney who represents local franchising authorities. "If you start high, you can capture additional price increases on that {bigger} base."

Cable trade organizations said they do not know how many systems have "re-tiered" in recent weeks. Local cable authorities say the strategy adopted in Montgomery and Arlington counties also has been implemented by systems in New Jersey, Kansas and the Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston and Cleveland areas. However, several systems operated by American Television Communications, of which Time Warner Inc. owns 82 percent, recently began offering a lower-cost basic service, said Marcia Simmons, an ATC spokeswoman.

Cable representatives say that for some operators, offering basic service at low rates is unprofitable.

"We still have the same overhead -- the same equipment to operate, the same technicians and customer service reps," said John Eddy, president of Cable TV Montgomery, which is owned by Hauser Communications of New York. "If we were going to {offer inexpensive basic service}, it would require {subscribers} to subsidize that service. We're not interested in that."

Because of high overhead, operators say they must charge a special "downgrade" fee for those who want to switch to the basic service. Yet consumer groups claim such fees discourage people from that choice and encourage them to buy the more expensive service instead.

In the Cleveland area, one system offered basic service at $2.50 a month -- if consumers paid a $100 "hookup" charge. Cable TV Montgomery subscribers who want only basic service must pay $25; the firm initially proposed a $59.95 "downgrade" charge before bending to county officials' complaints.

A system in the southern New Jersey area charges $80 to downgrade service, and another charged $60, said Kiki Vassoler, who monitors cable companies in the state. The extra service charges and pricing strategies "are a large loophole {in the cable bills} that must be closed," said Rep. Dennis Eckart (D-Ohio), a member of the House committee that will act on the cable bill next week.