Cable TV firms eye Balto. County

Companies express interest in market dominated by Comcast

March 20, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County consumers might soon be able to choose which cable company's wire enters their homes.

With two competitors to Comcast Corp. expressing interest in the Baltimore County market in recent months, County Council members are formally seeking proposals from companies interested in franchise agreements.

The council has set an April 13 deadline for applications but is not releasing the names of companies that have made inquiries.

"They don't want to reveal to each other who the other one is," said Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, who handles cable issues for the council, which has exclusive authority on cable decisions. "We are declaring an open season on applications."

Philadelphia-based Comcast was awarded a 15-year franchise in 1998, but the pact doesn't prevent other companies from entering the county.

Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, said he believes that competitors are interested because of technological advances that allow companies to bundle cable, Internet and telephone services.

Many consumers, he said, would like a chance to switch their cable television provider.

"There are those who love to hate Comcast," Kamenetz said. "The prospects of competition will only help to keep Comcast sharper."

Comcast representatives said they would monitor the application process closely. While the company does not object to competition, spokesman David H. Nevins said it would be unfair if competitors didn't have to abide by the same requirements as his company, such as offering service to all homes or providing public access and educational channels.

"Our interests, and frankly we think the consumer's best interest as well, is making sure there would be a level playing field for all parties," Nevins said.

Cable competition is emerging in Maryland. Last year, Montgomery County signed an agreement with a company called Starpower, a partnership between New Jersey-based RCN Corp. and Potomac Electric Power Co., the region's electric utility. Starpower will offer television, Internet access and phone service by piggybacking on Pepco's wires, said Jane Lawton, cable administrator for Montgomery County.

"They are interested in the whole region," Lawton said. "They are interested in competition because they don't consider themselves part of the cable club."

While Starpower hasn't started operating in Montgomery County, consumers are eager for an alternative, she said.

RCN officials did not respond to three telephone inquiries about their possible interest in the Baltimore area.

But observers said they would not be surprised if the company is interested in an agreement.

"Yes, they are a formidable competitor," said Eric Glick, a spokesman for the National Cable Television Association, a trade group that doesn't view RCN as a bona fide cable provider. "And we are doing all we can to fight back the challenge. We are pretty confident that we provide a competitive product."

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