Cable deal offered county

Comcast plans $10 million upgrade to digital service

7-year extension requested

July 13, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Offering free movie channels, digital cable and Internet service and cheaper rates to western Howard residents, Comcast Cable Communications Inc. is asking the county government to approve a deal that would lengthen its franchise in that area by seven years.

Comcast officials made their case to the Howard County Council at a morning meeting yesterday, but had no estimate of how long it would take to complete the $10 million upgrade in the western county.

A council resolution approving the merger of the county's two cable franchises - thereby lengthening the western franchise by seven years - could be introduced as early as September.

Comcast recently bought the former Mid-Atlantic cable television company, which had a franchise for the roughly 3,000 western county cable customers. Comcast already had the franchise for the eastern county, with about 60,000 subscribers.

The western franchise is due to expire in three years, compared with 10 years for the eastern franchise. Comcast wants a longer franchise in the west before investing money there.

If Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, is any indication, the proposal should have little trouble winning approval.

"I think it's a great idea," Kittleman said about Comcast's plans to make changes in the rural western county.

Comcast is planning an advertising campaign to begin Sunday, followed by a letter to western county subscribers in August describing the service changes, which are to begin Aug. 19. That's when the lineup of channels would change to resemble the eastern county menu, and eight new channels would become available in the west.

The monthly bill would not change, and all western county customers would get six premium movie channels free for as long as it takes to replace Mid-Atlantic's wire cable with high-speed fiber-optic cable.

Eastern county customers would pay $83.14 a month for the same channels.

Once the upgrade is complete, the monthly fee for basic service in the western county would match the eastern county tariff -which now is $10 a month cheaper.

Council Chairman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said she doesn't want customers who get free premium channels suddenly to be confronted with a bill for an extra $83.14 a month once the project is completed.

"That's one of the sore points," Lorsung said, if customers would have to take action to drop service they never asked for.

Kenneth N. Harris, Comcast's director of government and public affairs, said customers could choose to keep or drop any channels. Providing them free will cost the company $120,000 a month, he said - an incentive to complete the upgrade as quickly as possible.

But Kittleman agreed with Lorsung that people should not have to call the company to stop service they never requested.

Noting that most western county cable service comes through wires strung on utility poles, while most eastern county wires are buried, Kathy Conway, county cable administrator, said she gets complaints from the west only "when the wind blows, and they get a recording" when attempting to contact Mid-Atlantic.

To show how western county service is improving under Comcast, Conway said, she once relayed a customer complaint to Mid-Atlantic about coils of wire that had been left high in a tree.

The answer she received, she said, was "the [one] bucket truck was in the shop." Comcast, with its fleet of modern equipment, can handle service calls more quickly.

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