Leonardtown, MD — The Commissioners of St. Mary’s County are considering giving themselves the option of subsidizing expansion of cable TV service in rural areas that do not now have it. The commissioners unanimously agreed to table a proposed extension of the Cable franchise with Metrocast until language was drafted allowing the subsidies to be included.

The commissioners were told at their July 25 meeting that expansion into the more rural areas was a business decision. Metrocast’s Senior VP for Operations Steve Murdough said it costs his company $25,000 a mile to extend service.

When Metrocast decides it can’t afford to string cable to a rural home, that homeowner has the option of helping to pay for the infrastructure. Murdough said 96 families chose that option last year.

Director of Public Information and Technology Bob Kelly said that Metrocast has more than 20,000 customers in an area that covers about three-quarters of the county. Comcast has a franchise to cover the Golden Beach area and has about one-tenth of the customers that Metrocast has in the county. Comcast also has a franchise in Charles County

Kelly and the Metrocast representatives were asked by Commissioner Mike Hewitt [R – 2nd District} why the two companies weren’t competing against each other. Hewitt said he has been told it smacks of a monopoly. Kelly said that it was a business decision based on the cost of expanding each company’s infrastructure.

Kelly explained that the county’s control over the cable TV companies falls into a very small window and doesn’t include rates and programming provided. He said the county has a role because the cable companies use the county right of way. The county also can oversee the quality of the video and service response time. “Everything else is the responsibility of the company or the FCC (Federal Communications Commission),” he said.

Hewitt nonetheless pressed the company representatives about their rates and how they especially hit hard on senior citizens and others on fixed income. He asked, “Do you have some kind of break for these people on fixed income?”

Murdough responded that if they gave a break to one class of people then other customers would have to pay more to cover the subsidy.

The commissioners have a variety of sources for their TV and internet. Commissioner President Randy Guy [R] said he has satellite for both and he is perfectly happy with it. Murdough said satellite was the preferred option for folks that can’t get his cable service.

Commissioner John O’Connor [R – 3rd District] said he had to complain to the FCC in order to get quality problems resolved at his house.

Commissioner Todd Morgan [R – 4th District] complained that Verizon refused to provide FIOS service to the county. Kelly said he had reached out to them about entering into a franchise agreement but they opted not to. He said that was a business decision on Verizon’s part.

Commissioner Tom Jarboe [R – 1st District] said most of the rural areas that can’t now get cable are in his district. He moved to table the discussion about amending the cable franchise to give Kelly a chance to add language that would allow the county to subsidize cable TV extensions if they decide to do so in the future.

The proposed cable TV franchise modifications include free extensions to more public buildings and upgrading service to elementary schools and some other public building. Metrocast will also provide a $15,000 grant for new equipment for the county’s Channel 95. In exchange the county would extend the agreement with Metrocast for another 10 years.

Hewitt wanted a public hearing on the matter, but the other commissioners weren’t receptive to that idea. O’Connor said it would draw people in to complain about matters that the commissioners had no control over. “It provides a false hope by doing that, he said.

The issue will come back to the commissioners at their Aug. 30 meeting.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com