Fair cable deal for Baltimore County Internet and fiber optics: Taxpayers should profit from Comcast's new ventures.

November 10, 1997

CONSIDERABLE CONFUSION surrounds Baltimore County's new franchise agreement with Comcast Cablevision. More than a few cable TV subscribers assume, wrongly, that a recent 6-percent cable television rate hike was Comcast's way of passing on costs of the new agreement, which hasn't even been voted on yet.

If the County Council does approve it, the county would get 5 percent of Comcast profits from any service offered through its new fiber optic network. The rate increase is connected to the costs of the fiber optic upgrade, not to the agreement.

The non-exclusive deal looks like a good thing for taxpayers. Under the existing 15-year agreement, Baltimore County gets 5 percent of Comcast's television revenues. It is essentially a rental fee, as large as federal law allows, for use of public rights-of-way.

Baltimore County was able to swing a deal applying the fee to fiber-optic services because Comcast wanted another long-term contract to protect its investment. This deal ensures that taxpayers -- including those without cable -- will reap some benefit from the use of public property by the cable industry.

The county will be guaranteed revenue from everything from high-speed Internet access to sales of products on the QVC channel, which Comcast owns. The agreement also calls for Comcast to provide fiber optic service to all county schools and libraries. Cable industry analysts say the deal appears to be a fair one.

The widespread fear is that cable companies will try to recoup the cost of franchise agreements by asking customers to pay for it, especially since many companies, including Comcast, maintain virtual monopolies on local markets. This allows them to raise rates more freely than in a competitive environment.

Some area cable companies have indeed jacked up prices and blamed the increase on the government fee. This is an irresponsible ploy. Cable companies can't expect to use public rights-of-way for free any more than a shopkeeper should expect to operate out of someone else's building without paying rent.

Pub Date: 11/10/97

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