Balto. Co. cable TV proposals questioned

Companies seek OK to battle Comcast

June 07, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The promises sound too good to refuse.

Let us do business in Baltimore County, the two technology companies say, and we'll invest a combined $365 million on state-of-the-art fiber-optic networks. We'll offer cable television, local and long-distance telephone service and high-speed Internet access. And once we get here, Comcast - the lone cable provider in the county - will drop its prices and improve its customer service.

That's the pitch from Starpower Communications Inc. of Washington and American Broadband Inc. of Boston, two companies that have submitted proposals to compete with Comcast.

But in interviews with the companies this week, the County Council has found flaws in each plan. With a vote expected next month on whether Comcast retains its monopoly, it will soon become clear whether concerns are serious enough to delay cable television competition.

Starpower says that, if awarded a cable franchise, it would run wires only in the southern half of the county. While its services would reach what the company estimates would be 94 percentof the homes, residents in northern rural areas would be left out - an idea that irks Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a North County-Owings Mills Republican.

"If you are not going to serve that part of the county, then I don't want you at all," said McIntire. "That's a simple, clear statement, isn't it?"

Starpower representatives said economics make it nearly impossible to serve every home in the county. But they said they are interested in gaining as many customers as possible, and have no plans to "cherry-pick" only high-profit neighborhoods.

Council members said they also were concerned about Starpower's commitment to creating jobs in the county. While the company said it would add 100 jobs, its customer service center would be based in Virginia, and its bills would be sent from Dallas.

Starpower is a joint venture of RCN Telecom Services of Washington and Pepco electric utility. To help its chances, the company hired former Baltimore County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis as a lobbyist. "We believe the time is right to provide competition to the citizens of Baltimore County," said Deborah M. Royster, Starpower general counsel.

American Broadband, by contrast, is a start-up that does not operate a cable system. While company executives have significant industry experience, the lack of a track record is raising questions.

The company is backed by $50 million in venture capital from Great Hill Partners of Boston, said Edward T. Holleran Jr., American Broadband president.

American Broadband says it can lay its fiber-optic lines to more homes in less time than Starpower, covering 2,500 miles of roads in 40 months. Starpower says it would need 72 months to wire the 94 percent of homes in the county's southern half.

The firm pledges 159 jobs in the county, including a regional operations center and at least three satellite service centers.

But the company is too new to submit a proposed price list.

Despite the questions, Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat who takes the lead on cable issues, said each company has a decent chance at approval. "Each proposal meets the minimum threshold that Congress authorizes the local jurisdiction to review," he said. "Which are, primarily, technical expertise and sufficient financial backing."

A public hearing on awarding one or more new cable franchises is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. June 19 in the council chambers.

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