Verizon seeks to ease fears of severed lines

May 10, 2006|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

Having announced plans to lay almost 2,500 miles of cable throughout Baltimore County, Verizon Communications officials are working to ease fears prompted by severed utility lines during the company's construction in other counties.

Verizon wants to install the fiber-optic network so that it will have the technology to eventually offer cable television in the county. During construction in other counties, contractors have accidentally cut utility lines, with the area's dominant cable provider, Comcast, complaining of customer outages.

"I'm not here to tell you we've never damaged facilities," Verizon representative Robert Olsen told County Council members at a work session yesterday. But, he added, "We take every step we can to mitigate that damage."

Verizon has agreed to pay the county government $2.47 million for the right to lay the network in public rights of way.

Some of the money would be used for a construction manager to oversee the project, as well as on county inspections to minimize construction problems, Edward Adams, the county's public works director, told council members.

The County Council is to vote on Verizon's agreement with the county at its meeting Monday night.

Building a fiber-optic network would not guarantee Verizon's entry into the cable market in Baltimore County. By law, companies are required to obtain licenses, commonly known as a "cable franchise" agreements, with local governments before they can offer cable TV service. In Baltimore County, the County Council negotiates cable franchises.

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, who negotiates franchise deals on behalf of the council, said he has encouraged Verizon to enter franchise talks. But he said Verizon officials have declined.

"We've done everything we can to encourage their submission," Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, said last week. "If they had submitted a franchise application in October when I asked them to, they probably would have had an approved franchise agreement by now."

Verizon officials say they are waiting for council approval of the company's construction plans before beginning talks on a franchise agreement.

"We obviously have to begin upgrading our network before a franchise will do us any good," said Donora L. Dingman, Verizon's assistant vice president for external affairs. She declined to release construction plans.

Verizon has begun laying a fiber-optic network in Howard, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Brian A. Lynch, a Comcast vice president and general manager, testified before the council yesterday that the company has had almost 14,000 service disruptions in Howard County because of Verizon construction. Lynch said the company is not opposed to Verizon laying the cable in Baltimore County, but he added, "We're trying to protect our customers."

James M. Irvin, Howard County's public works director, said Verizon's construction initially caused problems, but that the company has been able to reduce them significantly, mostly by increasing the number of employees in the field who provide more oversight of contractors.

"In construction projects of this scope ... there is generally a disruption to particular services -- I don't care how well planned-out it is," former Howard County cable administrator Dean Smits said before he left that job this year. "I would also point out [that] when Comcast was upgrading their network a number of years ago, we had similar disruptions."

According to a Washington Post article in October, the Virginia State Service Commission had received 634 reports of cable, gas or other lines being damaged by contractors installing the Verizon fiber-optic network since July 2004.

Dingman, Verizon's assistant vice president for external affairs, said last week that the company has significantly reduced the number of construction problems.

"Baltimore County can expect to benefit from the fact that we've learned a lot of things and that we've added quite a work force since then," she said.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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