Law may strengthen cable company bids

Telecommunications act reduces veto power of county government

June 19, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A federal law designed to encourage cable television competition is strengthening the position of two telecommunications companies that want to do business in Baltimore County.

Even as the Baltimore County Council gathers public opinion tonight on the merits of firms seeking to challenge Comcast, the current cable provider, it finds itself with limited power to veto either applicant.

That's because the Telecommunications Act of 1996 provides a way to bypass local governments that traditionally have held sway on cable matters.

Companies can apply directly to the Federal Communications Commission for certification known as "open video systems" approval. The FCC must decide on applications within 10 days.

Both American Broadband, of Boston, and Starpower, of Washington, D.C., say they prefer to negotiate franchise agreements with the county, which would detail fees paid to the county and construction timetables.

But each says that federal authorization would be a trump card in case negotiations stall or fall apart.

"Given the sense of enthusiasm we've encountered so far, it appears we won't have to do it," said Donna Garofano, a vice president with American Broadband, which has been granted open video system licenses in dozens of communities in New York, Florida, Maryland and elsewhere.

Said Ted Venetoulis, the former Baltimore County executive hired as a lobbyist for Starpower: "Starpower is not going away."

The County Council has scheduled a public hearing on Starpower and American Broadband's applications after tonight's regular council meeting, which begins at 7 in the Old Court House, 400 Washington Avenue, Towson.

The promise of cable competition is good news for the scores of Baltimore County Comcast customers who have filed complaints in recent years ranging from cable boxes that don't work to service appointments that aren't kept or billing mistakes that take months to resolve.

Such complaints occupy thick files in the County Council offices.

"I hope they come soon," said Maxine Dubinsky, 55, an Owings Mills resident. "Then they can fight back and forth like the phone companies do."

Dubinsky said she grew outraged at Comcast after trying to get her digital cable service fixed. She said workers replaced the box five times before finding one that worked, and missed appointments several times.

"They have a monopoly, and they don't care how they treat you," Dubinsky said.

Complaints about Comcast are relatively few given the company's 210,000 subscribers in Baltimore County, said Arvin Rosen, an attorney who heads the county's Telecommunications Advisory Panel. The panel will review the two applications and make recommendations, Rosen said.

"I haven't seen a situation where there was a complaint registered and they didn't resolve it," Rosen said of Comcast. "On a statistical basis, it's under control. If anything, it's on the decline."

Still, Starpower and American Broadband see room for improvement. If cable competition comes to Baltimore County, the companies say, costs will drop and customer service will increase.

And if competition starts soon, the county will be on the cusp of a slowly emerging trend.

Nationwide, "a very low percentage" of communities enjoy cable competition despite the 1996 law, said Scott C. Cleland, a managing director of Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc.'s Precursor Group.

"Just because the telecommunications act declared competition, it didn't change the fundamental economics of the industry," Cleland said. "It's still a very capital inefficient use of money," he said, because of high initial costs and questionable returns.

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