In a move that could herald a competitive free-for-all in the monopoly-dominated local cable television industry, Bell Atlantic Corp. has unveiled plans to include an estimated 300,000 city and suburban customers in its rollout of advanced video services.
The Philadelphia-based phone company released details of its plans to offer "video dial tone" service in a construction-permit filing yesterday with the Federal Communications Commission.
The service, including hundreds of channels carrying TV programming and movies on demand, would compete with video rental stores and cable franchises.
A map accompanying the filing showed that residents of West Baltimore and a swath of suburbs running from Columbia to Cockeysville could be among the first people in the United States to watch movies and TV programs over telephone company lines. The areas to receive video service ranged from affluent suburbs to low-income city neighborhoods.
Edward Young, Bell Atlantic vice president and associate general counsel, said the first households in the Baltimore area could begin to receive video services as early as next spring if the FCC quickly approves the application.
Earlier, Bell Atlantic had said Montgomery County and Northern Virginia would get video capability ahead of the rest of its operating region. But Mr. Young said yesterday that parts of the Baltimore area were just as likely to be in the first wave.
Bell Atlantic's move poses a formidable challenge to incumbent cable operators. Not only would they face competition from Bell Atlantic's programming subsidiary, but the phone company's proposal also calls for a video system that would be open to other program providers.
Thus, Tele-Communications Inc. could use Bell Atlantic lines to compete with Comcast's cable system in Baltimore County, while Comcast could use phone company lines to go head-to-head with TCI's United Artists Cable in Baltimore.
Marilyn Harris-Davis, a United Artists spokeswoman, said the competition is welcome. "We have been in the business longer, so I imagine it will take a little longer for [Bell Atlantic] to get up to speed," she said.
But Michael Balhoff, a telecommunications analyst at Legg Mason, said cable television companies are vulnerable to a challenge.
"The real monopolistic-acting entities out there are cable companies, and you can tell it in the way they price and serve the customer in many instances," he said. "I think a lot of them are going to get their comeuppance when they come up against competition, because they've built up a lot of bad will out there."
Baltimore was one of six urban and suburban areas for which Bell Atlantic released rollout plans for the first phase of what it calls its "full-service network" yesterday. The others were Washington; Philadelphia; Northern New Jersey; Wilmington, Del.; and Hampton Roads, Va.
The sketchy maps Bell Atlantic released with its FCC filing showed that Cockeysville, Timonium, Towson, Lutherville, Pikesville, Randallstown and Woodlawn would be among the first Baltimore County communities to receive video service. Most of the eastern county would have to wait for a later phase.
In West Baltimore, the first areas to get service will include the Edmondson Avenue, Liberty Heights Avenue, Reisterstown Road and Windsor Mill Road corridors. The service also apparently will extend into parts of North and Northeast Baltimore around Hampden, Homewood, Waverly and Northwood.
In Howard County, Columbia, Ellicott City and North Laurel will be in the first phase. Carroll, Harford and most of Anne Arundel County lie outside the first-phase areas.
Next phase in 1995
Bell Atlantic spokesman Dave Pacholczyk said the company projects that subsequent phases, which will overlap with the first, will begin later in 1995 and in 1996. He said the entire metropolitan network will likely be in place by 1998.
Bell Atlantic said it anticipates that it will be able to offer 497 to 675 video channels over a network that will be a hybrid of fiber-optic and coaxial cable, which offer greater signal capacity than copper wires.
The company said 23 to 37 channels would be traditional analog channels that will not require customers to have a set-top box to unscramble the signal. These would include local broadcast stations and public, educational and governmental programming.
Bell Atlantic said 188 digital broadcast channels would be available for use by cable television program providers, including its own Bell Atlantic Video Systems. It said it would provide access to its subsidiary's Stargazer service and other providers' shows on a nondiscriminatory basis.
The company said 272 to 464 digital channels will be devoted to programs the viewer can call up on demand. These channels would also carry interactive multimedia services such as home shopping, educational courses and connections to computer on-line services.
The announcement comes three weeks after Bell Atlantic and three other Bell operating companies were stung by a charge leveled by a coalition of consumer and civil rights groups that they seemed to be practicing "economic redlining" -- avoiding poor and minority neighborhoods -- in their rollout of video services.
At the time, Bell Atlantic strongly denied the accusation, and the plans it announced yesterday seemed to contradict the coalition's charges. The first-phase territory includes many heavily black and lower-income neighborhoods in West Baltimore, Prince George's County and Baltimore County, as well as the District of Columbia and parts of Philadelphia and Camden, N.J.
Mr. Young, the Bell Atlantic vice president, said the filing should allay any fears of "electronic redlining."