After years of studying the complex and occasionally acrimonious births of cable television systems elsewhere, Montgomery County is inching closer to bringing cable TV to nearly 90 percent of its residences.
The County Council has scheduled a June 11 hearing on a bill that would allow one or two cable television companies to bring their systems into almost 200,000 households.
Council member Rose Crenca, who wrote the bill with Councilman Neal Potter, said she expects the county will be divided into two franchise areas serviced by separate companies. "It would take a trememdous amount of capital for one company to cover the whole county," she said.
The bill, which deals with the procedures for winning and operating a franchise, could be approved as early as next month.
Besides providing procedures for selecting franchisees, the bill also covers regulation of rates, the renewal and termination of franchises, the standards for delivery of services and fees to be paid to the county.
Once the bill is passed, John A. Hansman, the county's cable television project manager, estimates it could be another year before a franchise is awarded and another three to five years before the system is operating.
Those county residents living in sparsely populated areas are not likely to get cable TV, Hansman said, because it would be a poor investment for the franchisee to lay cable out there.
Although the system will eventually be able to service about 90 percent of the population, Hansman said, only about 40 percent are expected to be subscribers by the end of the system's third year.
The county's Office of Management and Budget, out of which Hansman works, estimates the annual per-household subscription fee will be between $100 and $180.
OMB also estimates it will cost $40 million to install the system and that the county will be receiving $443,000 in the eighth year of the system's operation, based upon a 3 percent tax on the franchise revenues.
Once the system is installed, the subscriber would have a minimum of 20 channels to choose from, although Hansman said he expects the actual-number will be twice that.
The bill does not spell out what all those channels will be. But Montgomery's system is expected to be somewhat similar to others around the country, including the one in Arlington, which provides a variety of sports, news, weather, entertainment and religious-oriented channels in addition to regular commercial channels.
But the Montgomery system, under the bill, would also require "non-voice" and "non-video" capabilities that would, for example, permit polling of viewers on public affairs issues. A subscriber could also use the system to link up to a smoke detector, burglar alarm, medical alert of police emergency alarm systems.
The bill also requires that there be at least one channel each for access by the public, the school system and local government. The bill also permits leased access channels that businesses may want to use for non-video communication, such as data transmission.
Hansman said he expects most of the major nationwide cable TV companies and a few local ones to bid for the franchise or franchises.
Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist is to select the companies to receive the franchises -- if two are awarded -- subject to the council's approval.
"Cable TV franchising has been an extremely controversial process in many communities," Gilchrist said in a memo to the council, "with intense lobbying from cable companies who are often represented by politically active local residents."
Prince George's County recently witnessed the political bickering that can arise from awarding potentially lucrative cable TV franchises. As a result of the scrapping, five municipalities in Prince George's have decided to grant their own franchises separately from the county.
Of Montgomery's 14 municipalities, only Gaithersburg has its own system. Rockville has its own cable TV ordinance and Takoma Park is studying the possibility of enacting one. The other municipalities are considered too small to make a cable system economically feasible.
Gilchrist has asked the municipalities, which account for 20 percent of the county's population, to cooperate with the county's efforts so there will not be a patchwork of systems that would make technical hookups around the county more difficult.
Anne Bushart, president of the Montgomery chapter of the Maryland Municipal League, said the chapter is basically in support of the county.
Bushart said that the municipalities will be making recommendations to the county on the system, including the possibility of revenue-sharing if the franchisee the county selects is given permission by the municipalities to service their residents.