Verizon strikes cable TV deal

Pact with Balto. Co. would give residents choice for first time

council OK is required

February 06, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun reporter

Verizon Communications Inc. has reached a deal with Baltimore County officials that for the first time would give county residents a choice of cable television providers - and, both sides said, the prospect of cheaper prices.

The deal, which requires County Council approval, sets the terms for the company to provide service countywide within 10 years. Some communities near the Baltimore Beltway could receive service as soon as this summer.

Verizon would compete directly with Comcast, currently the only option for county cable television customers. In the past year, Verizon has begun offering its cable service - called FiOS - in some parts of Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, as well as in Bowie and Laurel.

Comcast, meanwhile, is aggressively marketing telephone service in competition with Verizon, with both giants trying to lure customers with package deals combining digital cable, telephone service and high-speed Internet.

Baltimore County is the most populous county in Maryland without cable competition.

"The good news is for the first time they'll have a choice in cable providers," said Donora L. Dingman, a Verizon Maryland executive.

The 15-year agreement was reached yesterday by Verizon executives and a council member designated as the government's negotiator. The County Council last night set a March 5 vote on the proposed contract.

Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder said he needed to review the deal before commenting on it, but that he supports cable competition.

"Ever since I've been on the council, it's been something constituents have talked about," said Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat in his fourth term. "We've never had anybody with the financial backing that Verizon has to be able to come in and do the job."

Verizon officials say business has been brisk in areas where it has introduced cable service, though they could not release numbers on customers.

A spokesman for Comcast, which has about 220,000 subscribers in Baltimore County, said the cable giant is used to competition and is "years ahead" of Verizon.

"Competition is nothing new for Comcast, and we're very happy with our competitive position," said the spokesman, John Lamontagne. "Verizon is rolling out a network that is essentially the same as the one we deployed years ago."

Building a network

Verizon began building its fiber-optic network in Baltimore County last year.

By law, companies are required to get approval of local governments before they can offer cable service.

In Baltimore County, "franchise" agreements are negotiated by the County Council. The administration has no say on the deal.

Verizon's deal with the county, reached after five months of negotiations, would require the company to begin offering service in phases. In the first phase, the communities of Towson, Catonsville and Essex would be offered service within one to three years.

Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, who negotiated the deal on behalf of the council, said he tried to be "equitable" in determining which areas received service first, so that parts of each council district would receive service in each phase of the company's buildout.

Lower rates

"Baltimore County residents are very anxious for this," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. He predicted that competition would bring better service and lower rates.

Also under the deal, Verizon would contribute 5 percent of its gross revenue to the county as compensation for using county land to deliver the service. Comcast contributes the same percentage to the county, paying about $9 million a year, Kamenetz said.

$11 million a year

Comcast also provides free Internet service to schools and county government buildings. In lieu of those services, Verizon would be required to pay a fee to the county - about 66 cents per customer per month, Kamenetz said.

Kamenetz predicted that Verizon and Comcast would contribute a combined $11 million a year to the county.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

When it's coming

The tentative deal between Baltimore County and Verizon Communications Inc. sets time frames for which areas would be offered cable service.

Phase One(1-3 years)

Catonsville Reisterstown Towson Parkville Essex

Phase Two(3-5 years)

Randallstown Pikesville Hunt Valley

Phase Three(5-9 years)

Dundalk Arbutus Woodlawn Perry Hall White Marsh

Phase Four(10 years)

Fork Parkton

[ Source: Baltimore County Council]

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