Telecom rivalry is building in county

Competition with Comcast could mean a video-services change for consumers

`This is a big deal,' councilman says

The council is to vote on a resolution seeking OK for Verizon franchise talks

July 20, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Verizon utility trucks seen recently from Columbia to North Laurel are early signs of a building rivalry between the giant telecommunications company and Comcast Cable that could change the video-services landscape for Howard County residents.

The County Council is to vote this month on a resolution seeking permission for Verizon to begin negotiating a franchise agreement with the county - the first such agreement for which Verizon has applied in Maryland.

"This is a big deal," said Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat.

"It's a major, major construction project," said Dean Smits, the county's new cable administrator. "Consumers have been waiting since 1996 to have choices," he said, referring to a cable regulatory law approved by Congress that year.

If the resolution is approved by the council July 28, Verizon would have 90 days to negotiate an agreement with County Executive James N. Robey's administration, and the deal then would come back before the council for a separate vote, Smits said. A public hearing would be held as part of the administration's franchise negotiation, he said.

Verizon may install fiber optic cable without waiting for a franchise because, as a telephone provider, the firm has the right to use the utility easements.

The competitive tensions inherent in the project were on full display Monday night at a council public hearing, which, in an unrelated matter, also featured pleas by county cabdrivers and their employers for approval of proposed fare increases.

While Verizon officials praised their new system as the answer to customers' high-tech woes, a Comcast official claimed Verizon was responsible for 260 cuts to Comcast cables in 25 days, interrupting cable service to 2,200 customers in the county. Verizon labeled that a vast exaggeration.

Brian Lynch, area vice president and manager for Comcast, said he is not opposed to Verizon's attempt to get a franchise.

"Comcast believes competition will benefit consumers, but we want a level playing field," he said.

He went on to accuse Verizon of trying to take unfair advantage by seeking a statewide or even a national franchise instead of approaching local governments, and of "targeting high-income customers in Howard County."

Smits said complaints about Comcast cable service to his office are down by more than half since last year, and council members said they have received few, if any, complaints recently.

Donora L. Dingman, a Verizon vice president, told the council that her company's installation of fiber optic cable reaching individual homes will vastly improve computer and, later, video services and will be more reliable than older, coaxial cable. The competition with Comcast, moreover, should also reduce customer prices up to 15 percent, she said.

Dingman acknowledged that a few Comcast wires may have been cut in error, but Smits said the two companies are meeting twice monthly to exchange information and minimize problems.

Statewide, Verizon hired 250 employees and 1,400 contractors to do the work. The new high-capacity cable would provide room for 300 to 400 video channels, speed computers up to 20 times dial-up rates, and allow HDTV, as well.

According to Harry Mitchell, Verizon's Mid-Atlantic regional director of media relations, the service would allow the use of multiple TVs, computers and phone use simultaneously - if a franchise is approved.

The service is being tested in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and the firm has four franchises there and one each in California and Florida. In Maryland, cable is being laid in parts of Howard, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

Taxi rates

On the issue of taxi rates, Ulman expressed reservations about the size of the increase proposed. But cab owners and drivers said that with gasoline approaching $2.50 a gallon, they need relief.

The cost of a four-mile trip would rise from $6.25 to $9.18, including a 90-cent gas surcharge. Other surcharges also would increase, depending on the time, destination and baggage. Howard cabbies last got a raise five years ago, when fuel was nearly $1 a gallon cheaper.

Sammy Tachie, 42, a Ghanaian native who supports a wife and three children with his Columbia Cab, said the council should consider how often cabs must roll empty in Howard County's suburban spaces.

"A cab may go from Harper's Choice to Elkridge for a $3 fare," he said, burning gas to get there and coming back empty, too. "You can come from Ellicott City to Kings Contrivance for a trip to the grocery store," he said, though Howard cabs are not permitted to pick up return fares from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The council is set to vote on the rate proposal July 28.

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