Owens backs Verizon cable

15-year service agreement needs council approval

June 02, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

Anne Arundel County officials are predicting lower cable rates and better service under a 15-year cable agreement announced yesterday by County Executive Janet S. Owens - assuming the County Council goes along with the tentative deal.

At a news conference yesterday in Annapolis with Verizon Maryland President William R. Roberts, Owens said the need for additional competition beyond Comcast Corp. and Millennium Digital Media, which already serve the county, "was a driving force in the county's commitment in trying to pursue this."

County officials said that Comcast and Millennium Digital Media together cover about 99 percent of the county, and that 65 percent of residents have access to both.

"We have had two cable providers in Anne Arundel County for quite some time, and when you have competition, you tend to get more reasonable rates," Owens said.

But the agreement, which came after 11 months of negotiations, still would have to be approved by County Council members, some of whom - including Chairman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican - are skeptical that Verizon can provide service quickly to more sparsely populated sections of the county, especially in some southern sections.

Owens forwarded a bill to the council Tuesday that includes the 47-page contract. A public hearing is set for June 19; a final vote could occur that night.

"We add our voice to the county executive in urging the Anne Arundel County Council to bring the benefits of video competition to your residences," Roberts said.

If the council approves the deal, Anne Arundel would become the second county in Maryland to grant Verizon a cable franchise. Howard County and the cities of Bowie and Laurel in Prince George's County have granted Verizon cable licenses.

Verizon is negotiating with Prince George's and Montgomery counties for cable franchises as well as with Baltimore County, which gave the company approval this month to lay 13 million linear feet of fiber-optic cable. That wiring is critical to Verizon's offering "bundled services" of phone, high-speed Internet and cable service.

Comcast and Millennium are marketing similar combined services.

Verizon has been laying fiber-optic cable for about a year in Anne Arundel. Verizon began offering high-speed Internet last fall over that newly installed wiring and now serves at least 12 communities, from Annapolis to Odenton to Pasadena.

According to the proposed deal, Verizon will provide cable service to about two-thirds of the county - running east from Laurel through Odenton and Crofton and into Crownsville, Severna Park, Mayo and Annapolis - in an initial phase. Within that area, Verizon has agreed to offer cable to all businesses within two years and to nearly all homes within five years. Where service will be installed depends on population density, according to the deal.

Within seven years, nearly three-quarters of the county would have service, except portions of the southern end, according to the agreement.

Roberts said that the timetable for service could change depending on market demand.

In Baltimore County, Verizon is paying the local government up to $2.47 million, including a lump sum and 19 cents for every foot of cable installed. By comparison, Anne Arundel is netting a few hundred thousand dollars from Verizon in permits.

Under the deal, Verizon would provide free basic cable service to all county schools, fire and police stations, libraries and other buildings "used for municipal purposes."

"It's a major step forward," Owens said. "This will help us complete out our entire system."

The county would receive 5 percent of all cable revenue from Verizon. Currently, the county nets $5.6 million in such fees from Comcast and Millennium, and officials said they are uncertain how Verizon's entrance into the market would affect those revenues.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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