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Channel surfing on muscle beach Howard County: As long as cable TV has a monopoly, government is a 98-pound weakling


THE ARROGANCE of cable TV monopolies apparently knows few bounds. Consider recent steps by Comcast Corp., the company that serves about eight of every 10 Howard County cable customers. First, Comcast asked county officials to allow it to continue operating in the county for 15 years. Then, Comcast sweetened the deal by promising to add 34 new channels to the 50 it already provides. Lastly, on the day all of this became public, it announced a rate increase.

Comcast plans to raise the rate for basic service from $9.63 a month to $9.91, and for expanded service from $12.84 to $13.13. County Executive Charles I. Ecker and the County Council will likely sign off on the agreement to extend the contract, the rate increases will take effect Nov. 1 and Comcast will continue to have a lock on the lucrative market of Howard County. (Locally, Comcast also has franchises in Baltimore and Harford counties and is upgrading its offerings in those jurisdictions as well.)

The county, alas, is over a barrel. With no other company poised to compete with Comcast, Howard is at the whim of this monopolized industry. Federal law was supposed to remedy the problem by lowering rates through competition, but those laws have proved impotent. Meantime, Comcast wants the County Council to set strict rules for termination of its contract. Under this agreement, grounds for denying contract renewal would be proven bad service, violation of the franchise agreement or a disregard of subscribers.

The good news is Comcast's plan to expand its service. But that decision benefits the company as well: It furthers the firm's lock on a market that it already dominates. For another cable company to come into Howard would require a tremendous infusion of capital, and Comcast's 34-channel addition makes the task of competing more difficult. County officials point out that no bidder has stepped forward with any plans to enter Howard.

The county did wrest a few other gains out of its talks with Comcast, including access to a fourth channel for government broadcasts, new equipment for its access stations and cheaper rates for cable data services. But local governments will continue to negotiate from a position of weakness as long as monopolies dominate the cable marketplace.

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