Cable expansion proposed Comcast Corp. seeks to add 34 channels to the current 50; Oct. 16 hearing set; Company seeking clarification of county regulations


Channel surfing will get a little more hectic in Howard County if the County Council approves a cable television agreement that was introduced last night. Comcast Corp., which serves about 85 percent of county cable watcheryear, certain communities in Columbia -- Harpers Choice, Hickory Ridge and parts of Wilde Lake -- would be the first to receive the new channels.

An Oct. 16 public hearing has been scheduled on proposed cable television agreement. County and Comcast officials have been negotiating the agreement for the last two years.

"I think we broke even," Mr. O'Connor said of the negotiations.

Comcast officials yesterday did not respond to requests for comment.

The agreement would allow Comcast, which began broadcasting in Howard in 1974, to continue operating in the county for an additional 15 years, starting in 1996.

Both the council and County Executive Charles I. Ecker must approve the agreement.

Related to the new agreement, Comcast wants county officials to clarify Howard's laws relating to cable regulation.

Under another proposal introduced last night, the county would have to hold a public hearing before revoking a cable agreement. And the complaint would have to be serious.

But Mr. O'Connor said he would have followed those guidelines anyway.

"It doesn't dilute our control whatsoever," he said, adding, "I've never been in this position to nit-pick [with] them."

Comcast will be installing fiber optic cables throughout the county, which will allow it to offer a minimum of 84 channels, Mr. O'Connor said.

Comcast also plans to provide data communication over the new fiber optic cables. As part of the agreement, county government will get preferential rates on the data communications network, Mr. O'Connor said.

The firm also agreed to offer cable within one year to any area where there are 30 homes per mile of cable. The old agreement called for a denser number -- 75 homes.

But Mr. O'Connor said the company has been quick to offer service in new areas because it wants to make money.

Comcast delivers service in all but the western county where Mid-Atlantic Cable provides 53 channels and six "premium" channels, said Gay Sterling of Mid-Atlantic.

She said Mid-Atlantic plans to add 8-10 more stations in the spring. The firm's current agreement with the county extends for another eight years, Mr. O'Connor said.

The cable agreements allow companies to operate in the county. Any cable company can apply for an agreement so competition is a possibility in the future, Mr. O'Connor said.

Also last night, the council voted to tax cellular telephone users 50 cents each month to help pay for 911 service. That charge, to be collected on monthly telephone bills, will start Jan. 1. Home telephone users already pay 50 cents a month to fund the emergency service.

The council also voted to allow the Department of Social Services to spend approximately $280,000 in state funds to buy 138 modular desk stations.

That works out to about $2,000 per bureaucrat.

All five council members voted to allow funding for the new furniture, although chairman Charles C. Feaga said, "This is something I have some concerns about It does scare me."

Mr. Feaga said he will look at the furniture after it is purchased.

DSS workers now work on old, unmatched furniture that is not designed for today's computers and other office equipment. The proposed desk stations are small units that contain a desk, file cabinets, bookshelves, a chair and a coatrack. They are designed to fit together, in pods.

The upgrade in Howard is part of a statewide refurbishing of DSS offices, said J.C. Shay, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

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