County Council OKs new contract with Comcast

Pact resolves dispute regarding Internet fees

September 21, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Council voted last night to extend Comcast Corp.'s nonexclusive franchise agreement as part of a deal in which the cable giant will build the county a fiber-optic network in exchange for the county giving up a claim on disputed Internet fees.

The council unanimously approved the contract, which will provide the county with a fiber-optic network connecting 14 county sites, including the public safety building, new detention center and the main government complex in Towson. Comcast has agreed to make the connections within 18 months without passing the cost on to customers.

County officials say the network will make video-conferencing possible and allow them to offer more services to residents via the Internet and telephone. It also will allow authorities to conduct bail review hearings without transporting prisoners to district courts because they can appear for the proceedings by video, officials said.

As part of the deal, the county will not try to collect a percentage of Comcast's Internet service profits, according to Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, who headed the negotiations with the cable company. Those fees had generated about $800,000 a year for the county.

The county had been collecting those fees until last year, when the Federal Communications Commission ruled that local governments cannot collect franchise fees for Internet services, and Comcast stopped paying Baltimore County. The county had a franchise agreement with Comcast through 2012 to collect 5 percent of its profits on both television and Internet services.

The new contract with Comcast remains nonexclusive, meaning another cable company could provide service if it covers the entire county.

The cost for Comcast to build the fiber-optic network is about $450,000, plus annual maintenance costs of about $24,000, according to the company. Kamenetz has said it would cost the county $6 million to have a contractor build the network.

The deal raised no objections from any of the councilmen nor did it prompt public comment, though a small group of people wearing Comcast shirts attended last night's meeting.

At the council's work session last week, the deal raised the ire of some union officials who said the agreement could take work away from union employees at Verizon. One Verizon employee, a union steward, told council members that the deal is "essentially a no-bid contract."

The fiber-optic network could eventually allow the county to operate its own telephone system -- a service currently provided by Verizon. In June, the county signed a three-year contract with an optional two-year extension with Verizon to operate the county's phone system. The county spends $1.3 million annually for the phone service, said Thomas G. Iler, head of the county's Office of Information Technology. The county school system spends $835,000 a year for service, Iler said.

Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, has said the agreement with Comcast has no effect on Verizon and that it makes no sense to seek bids for a fiber-optic network that the county can have for free.

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