A Bethesda-based company has applied for a franchise to provide cable television service to the western half of Howard County, providing a vivid illustration of that once-rural landscape's increasing turn to suburbia.
The Howard County Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing Monday on the application by Mid-Atlantic Communications, the company that last year tried without success to get permission to provide cable hookups in about 1,000 apartments in Savage and Laurel.
The earlier proposal raised the ire of the Cable Television Advisory Board and some members of the County Council because the Savage area is already served by the county's longtime cable company, Howard Cable.
In contrast, Mid-Atlantic is now seeking to enter uncharted territory. Its proposed area of service, which is defined by the Carroll County border to the north, the Montgomery County border to the west, the Prince George's County border to the south and Shepherd Lane to the east, is not served by Howard Cable.
County Council member Charles Feaga, whose district encompasses most of the proposed service area, joked that he had mixed feelings at the thought of his constituents being able to watch his votes on their television sets for the first time via the county government's cable channel. Nevertheless, he said he has no quarrels with Mid-Atlantic's latest application.
"I think this one is a lot fairer. Howard Cable is not out there, and they don't have any immediate plans to be out there," Feaga said.
If the council approves its bid, Mid-Atlantic will become just the second company to have been granted a cable franchise here. Howard Cable, which was later bought out by Storer Communications, was awarded the first in 1976. It now serves most of the eastern half of the county, including Columbia, parts of Ellicott City and Savage.
In its application, Mid-Atlantic says it will begin constuction on the system immediately after the franchise is issued.
Although some council members said they have wondered how Mid-Atlantic plans to make a profit operating in the county's least densely populated area, Peter Bennett, chairman of the cable advisory board, said there is no mystery to it.
Technological advances in the cable industry in the past 10 years have greatly reduced the costs of providing service, and the wealthy former urbanites who are rapidly replacing farmers in West Friendship and beyond virtually guarantee a steady source of income, he said.
"Storer already has all of Columbia, but there's no growth in Columbia. There's nothing but growth in the west end . . . . It's going to explode," Bennett said. "They are going to have to plow in a lot of money at the beginning, but they are going to be sitting on a massive growth area for 20 or 30 years."
Plans call for providing service to an initial 6,000 households in 1989 and automatically expanding service every year after that to neighborhoods where the population density exceeds 20 homes per linear mile. Residents of less densely populated areas would have access to the Mid-Atlantic system if they are willing to share the cost of extending cable to their homes.
In the past, the county has required that Howard Cable extend service only to areas where the population exceeds 75 homes per mile.
Also, Mid-Atlantic is promising to offer its subscribers more channels than Storer, and for a lower price. Its application proposes charging $12.95 a month for basic service, compared with Howard Cable's $13.95. Charges for pay channels such as Home Box Office, hookups for additional television sets, and installation also would be slightly lower, the application states.
Included in the basic monthly fee would be a channel offering local sports programming, Home Team Sports, a feature for which Howard Cable charges extra. The basic service will have 46 channels, compared with Howard Cable's 30.
Also, the company has decided to provide public access, education and government channels with microwave signals. Last spring's discussions between Mid-Atlantic and the County Council, which initially granted a conditional franchise, broke down after Mid-Atlantic was unable to come up with a workable plan for such community programming, which county law requires.