Cable industry accuses Md. of favoring C&P Schaefer adviser denies steering projects to phone company

July 18, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

CARMICHAEL -- Francis J. Knott and Wayne O'Dell haven't even met, but their relationship is already dysfunctional.

Mr. Knott, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's chief adviser on telecommunications policy, lashed out this weekend at Mr. O'Dell, a spokesman for the cable TV industry. Mr. Knott spoke after Mr. O'Dell stepped up his accusations that the Schaefer administration is promoting the interests of C&P Telephone Co. of Maryland behind closed doors at the cable industry's expense.

"I am sick of hearing about Wayne O'Dell," Mr. Knott exploded after he was asked about Mr. O'Dell's complaints that the cable TV industry had been excluded from meetings of the Governor's Information Technology Board Friday and yesterday.

"Maybe I've been a private-sector businessman too long," said Mr. Knott, chairman of the advisory panel. "We shoot idiots like this. We fire them."

Mr. O'Dell, whose industry is up in arms over the Schaefer administration's recent agreement to let C&P link all the state's high schools and colleges in a fiber-optic network, complained Friday that his industry had been excluded from the meetings on the Eastern Shore that continued yesterday. The meetings were billed as a "technology retreat" at the Aspen Institute.

The meetings were closed to representatives of companies that provide telecommunications services, but a reporter was allowed sit in on yesterday's sessions.

Mr. Knott said that there was not enough room to accommodate industry representatives and that C&P officials were not present, either. "This is not a decision-making retreat," Mr. Knott said. "This is not even a strategic planning retreat."

He said the main purpose was to teach the members, most of whom are state Cabinet secretaries and other officials, about telecommunications issues.

Yesterday's morning session was dominated by briefings and demonstrations by private-sector and academic experts on the latest advances in information technology. The afternoon session was largely a brainstorming session in which state officials silently exchanged ideas through a network of portable computers.

Members said the exercise was designed to encourage the free flow of ideas without regard to politics. But there was no way for a reporter without a computer to assess what passed back and forth.

Mr. Knott and other board members said that there was no intention to conceal anything from the public and that no decisions had been made. One member, Frank O. Heintz, chairman of Maryland's Public Service Commission, allowed a reporter to view summaries of the most popular ideas suggested.

"There was not even a discussion leading up to a vote in a public meeting," said Art Pittenger, interim provost at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

On Friday, Mr. O'Dell, president of the Cable Television Association of Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia, was not mollified by Mr. Knott's assurances.

"I think it's just further evidence of the intention to leave cable out of it as well as the communications providers," he said. "I just see it as a continuation of the closed-door policies."

Mr. O'Dell said the Maryland cable TV industry is developing a telecommunications plan of its own.

"The way it looks right now, our plan would be competitive with the phone company's plan," he said. He hinted at a lawsuit if that plan does not receive serious consideration.

Mr. O'Dell said his industry wants to participate with the board's committees. Mr. Knott said he welcomed the cable companies' participation.

"You guys can listen to Wayne O'Dell moan and bitch till the cows come home, but until he calls, it's put up or shut up," said Mr. Knott, a Georgia businessman who was born in Maryland. An old friend of Governor Schaefer, he is serving as chairman without pay and said he plans to return to his native state.

"Why does he [Mr. O'Dell] keep calling you and not calling me?" Mr. Knott asked a reporter.

"I haven't heard from him either, so I guess the feelings are mutual," Mr. O'Dell said.

Governor Schaefer has hailed C&P's offer to link 270 schools in a "distance learning" network as a historic opportunity for Maryland to create an "information highway" that will help it compete in the decades ahead. C&P has also agreed to donate some $10 million worth of video equipment to schools to help them get up and running.

But Mr. O'Dell contends that C&P's gift horse is a Trojan. Maryland ratepayers and taxpayers will end up subsidizing a C&P infrastructure that the telephone company will use to enter the cable business, he said.

"In effect, this is being sold under the premise of education, which certainly sounds good and brings good publicity," he said.

C&P doesn't deny its interest in entering the cable business, from which it is now legally barred, but it maintains that ratepayers will not subsidize the network's construction.

C&P plans to recover its $40 million investment with fees from schools that hook into the network: $1,365 a month for the first three years and double that amount, $2,730, after that. If as many as 270 sites are joined, C&P could earn $4.4 million in each of the first three years and $8.8 million a year thereafter.

The disputes between the cable industry and the state could receive their first public airing Aug. 5. Mr. Knott said yesterday that representatives of all telecommunications companies in the state would be invited.

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