Comcast is pushing to delay a Howard County Council vote next month on approval of a new cable television franchise for rival Verizon, which claims the county will be the first place in Maryland to experience true free-market competition for cable TV services.
If the franchise is approved, 85 percent to 90 percent of Howard residents would have a choice between the two firms for video services within three years. But Comcast officials say the franchise that Howard County has negotiated with Verizon contains provisions unfair to Comcast, the county's only cable provider.
The battle between the two corporate giants is part of a national clash, as the lines between telephone, cable television and computer services gradually merge.
Verizon hopes for national legislation that will allow the company to avoid the painfully slow process of negotiating with every incorporated town, county and city in the United States to sell video services. Verizon has agreements in areas of California, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts and Virginia. Most recently, it began service last month in Herndon, Va.
Meanwhile, Comcast is getting into the telephone business.
In making its case for a cable television franchise, Verizon boasts that its new fiber-optic service, called FiOS TV, will bring high-speed, large-capacity wires directly into people's homes. Verizon has been installing fiber-optic cable in Howard for the past six months -- which the company can do without a video franchise because the same wires deliver computer and telephone services.
County cable officials praised the Verizon franchise at a public hearing this week.
"This will give Howard County residents a choice for the first time ever," said Dean Smits, the county's cable administrator. He said competition could result in a 15 percent reduction in cable rates.
In a letter prepared for County Council members who have been lobbied by Comcast, Smits said "the `issues' Comcast has raised are largely misrepresentations and falsehoods." The franchise agreement, he said, makes the two rivals overall equals as competitors.
"Residents of Howard County will reap the benefits. The addition of a second major service provider has no apparent down side," Martin Stein, chairman of the county cable advisory committee, said at the council hearing Monday night.
"This will be the first county in Maryland for this competition," added Denora L. Dingman, a Verizon vice president who at the hearing led a contingent of more than 50 company employees who live in Howard.
But that night, and at a council work session late Tuesday, Comcast officials asked that the bill be tabled for more review, claiming that a long list of franchise provisions is unfair.
"Where will customers go to pay their bills? Over 75,000 customers visited Comcast's business office," said Brian Lynch, Comcast area vice president, noting Comcast's objection that the franchise does not require a Verizon business office in Howard, such as Comcast's in Troy Hill Business Park in Elkridge.
Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell called that argument "page one of the cable monopoly delay handbook."
At one point, Councilman David A. Rakes said he felt that, with the proposed franchise, "we're allowing Verizon to get a running start" on attracting new business. Verizon plans to begin delivering television services as soon as April, if the council approves the contract.
Smits, the cable administrator, disagreed with Rakes' assertion.
"Comcast is entrenched with more than 70,000 subscribers. They're a monopoly," he told the council.
After two hours of discussing a 10-page list of Comcast's concerns and Smits' replies, council members said they want answers on several of Comcast's points before the vote, scheduled for Jan. 3.
They want to know, for example, whether Verizon should be required to establish a business office in Howard County -- Laurie Edwards, Verizon franchise manager, said, "We have served out customers for years without a local business office" -- and whether the two competitors will cooperate on broadcasts of county government meetings.
Smits dismissed almost all of Comcast's written comments with words such as "false," "misleading" and "inane."
Smits added that any changes the council makes could require new legislation.