Channel surfers in Baltimore soon could have the chance to enter a new cable frontier.
After months of chronic complaints over cable service, the City Council came out squarely last night in favor of ending the monopoly of United Artists Cable in Baltimore.
The council, in a key vote, unanimously approved a measure to give other cable companies an opportunity to compete with United Cable as early as the fall.
"The free ride is over," said Councilman Martin E. "Mike" Curran, who represents Northeast Baltimore's 3rd District. "Before, there was just one game in town."
Under the measure, which could be up for a final vote next week, the city's Cable Communications Advisory Commission would be asked to develop a process by Oct. 1 to provide franchises for competing cable companies. Franchise agreements would have to be approved by the Board of Estimates, the five-member panel that reviews almost every aspect of city business.
The council's action came three months after City Hall issued an ultimatum to United Cable to improve its service. In early March, after persistent complaints from residents trying to get wired for cable TV, the city ordered the company to provide installation of cable converter boxes within the seven days required by the franchise agreement.
United Cable has been working to correct the problem by placing some employees on overtime and hiring independent contractors to reduce the backlog of orders. At a hearing in late March, Coles Ruff, United Cable's general manager, said the company's subscriber base was growing, outages were declining and service calls were being completed on time.
Nevertheless, several council members said last night that they still are receiving complaints about cable service. Cable subscribers also have made clear that they're looking for other choices, including ESPN2 and the Sci-Fi Channel, missing from the current lineup in Baltimore.
In other action last night, the council voted 14-5 to approve the first part of a large expansion by insurance giant USF&G Corp. in Mount Washington. The approval of a multilevel, 925-space parking garage brings the company a step closer in its consolidation effort.
Voting against it were Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., Lois Garey and John L. Cain, all of the 1st District; Carl Stokes of the 2nd; and Joseph J. DiBlasi Jr. of the 6th.
More than a dozen Mount Washington residents protested the vote by marching with picket signs outside City Hall. Residents fear the neighborhood will be permanently altered when the company shifts about 800 employees from its Inner Harbor tower to the Mount Washington campus. Other plans, including a 144-room conference center and another 276-space parking garage, still are up for approval.