Anne Arundel cable wars dig up trouble for residents

Race to upgrade system accompanied by damaged utilities

July 22, 2000|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County opened up competition for cable television more than a decade ago, hoping to see a quicker delivery of service to communities that had waited years to be wired under a monopoly franchise system.

The result was shared turf, and a race for customers by two cable companies digging across lawns and driveways to reach the unserved.

Now a new race is under way as Comcast Cable Co. and Millennium Digital Media upgrade their systems, laying fiber-optic lines for digital cable and high-speed Internet service north of U.S. 50, though some say the race is being run too quickly.

Lawns are being torn up or scrawled with bright construction markings. Residents are reporting cut phone and utility lines. And last month, a subcontractor digging for Comcast ruptured a gas line near Folger McKinsey Elementary School in Severna Park, forcing the evacuation of 600 pupils.

"When you cut a gas line there's a public safety concern there; same thing with an electric line," said Victor A. Sulin, the county's director of cable communications. "We're very concerned about it. We're talking about potential here, but this kind of thing you just don't fool around with."

In the past month and a half, about 10 cases of cut utility lines have been reported to county cable authorities.

Construction errors cause a range of problems, from dangerous gas leaks to loss of electricity, cable service or telephone service as in the case of Arnold resident Frank J. Doyle.

"They sliced through my telephone line," Doyle said. "And the telephone company knew it was the cable contractor."

The problem is brought about by the fact that Anne Arundel is not among the 91 percent of cities and towns in the nation that have only one cable provider, leaving residents with no choice of company, rates or service, according to the National League of Cities.

Baltimore County has recently considered also allowing cable competition and will move forward with deliberations next month.

Before they dig, the companies engaged in the competing upgrades are required by law to contact "Miss Utility," a state-hired management agency that determines where existing utility lines are buried. With this data, the companies engaging in digs map out the location of utility lines, typically hiring a contractor to spray the ground with color-coded markers, said James Holzer, director of operations for Miss Utility.

The markings are essential for construction crews digging trenches for cable or operating the machine that lays the cable.

The law requires two working days' notice before digging, and if Miss Utility's response cannot keep up with increasing construction requests, the likelihood of construction crews slicing utility lines increases. Who's responsible is a matter of opinion.

"There's so much construction going on," said James Lyons, the county's cable administrator, that "the Miss Utility locatings are not being done as quickly and thoroughly as they should be."

Holzer said that while Miss Utility does not track requests by county, they have increased 25 percent across Maryland this year, largely because of fiber-optic installation. "We're certainly able to keep up with the volume," he said, "although it is something [staff members] are struggling with."

Sulin said the cable companies have not been at fault and were not to blame for the Severna Park accident. He said ruptures occurred because underground utilities were unmarked or mismarked.

The county has made efforts to reduce errors. At the local government's urging, the cable companies have adopted a policy that prevents crews from digging unless they see markings for electrical utilities, instead of assuming that no red lines means no electrical wires.

"Now, if there are no red lines, we're directing them to go home," Lyons said. There are no similar restrictions when gas or phone line markings are missing. But even if these measures do reduce problems with construction - scheduled to continue for about a year -another outcome of the race to upgrade is annoying many residents.

A sore spot with residents is how cable construction affects their property. Doyle said some areas of his neighborhood have become "a monstrosity of boxes and wires" sitting on residents' lawns, left by cable companies rushing through the community.

The county's rights of way - public ground through which runs a multitude of utility wires and cables - often run through front yards. While cable companies say they take care to alert residents to work and to resod damaged lawns, many homeowners report troubling experiences.

Kathryn A. Handleman of Millersville lost her cable service twice when first one cable company, then another, swept through the neighborhood.

Leonard B. Berkoski returned to his Arnold home one evening to find that the number of utility boxes in his front yard had multiplied, leaving a gallery of electronic cases.

Other residents complain that their well-manicured lawns get unwanted makeovers in the name of fiber optics.

"They [Comcast] just came in and tore up our yard really bad," said Shipley's Choice resident Gail Smith. "They busted our sprinkler system and haven't returned our calls."

"Millennium and Comcast, they're trying to go and compete with one another," said Handleman. "But if they really wanted to get the majority of business, what they should do first is improve customer service."

Cable company representatives said they sympathize with residents and have tried to make the construction process as painless as possible. And after millions of dollars and thousands of miles of cable, neighborhoods will be able to benefit from state-of-the-art digital technology, company officials said.

"You do have to disturb a lot of area to put it in," said John Waters, director of technical operations for Comcast. "But it improves and enhances the digital quality, it improves its reliability, and it will allow us to offer additional services. Hopefully the consumer will see the long-term benefits."

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