Council weighs fining Comcast over 'temporary' above-ground cables

Inaction for months prompts a bill setting 15-day limit to bury lines

  • A newly installed cable lies on the ground behind a townhouse on Winter Rose Path in Columbia. A bill under consideration would require it be buried within 15 days.
A newly installed cable lies on the ground behind a townhouse… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
November 29, 2009|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

Bill Lewis said he called Comcast Cable a dozen times and even visited in person over the roughly nine months it took to get the cable giant to bury a "temporary" wire strung above ground near his home in Columbia's Oakland Mills, and he's fed up.

"I called and called. I made a trip to the Comcast office and lodged a complaint," he said, adding that the clerk seemed to be recording his information, though no noticeable result followed.

The wire, which stretched about 200 yards between utility posts that sprout from the ground on his block of Afternoon Lane, "was unsightly," he said. "When I cut the lawn I had to always look out for this silly cable." The saga began about a year ago, he said, and ended finally in late July, after he involved his Columbia Association representative, Howard County's cable administrator and, finally, his county councilman's office.

His frustration is not unusual, which is why the Howard County Council is considering a bill that would require such above-ground cables to be buried within 15 days or the cable company could incur civil fines, though it could seek a 15-day extension. County Executive Ken Ulman and four of the five council members are sponsors and a vote is scheduled Dec. 7.

Lobbyists from Comcast and Verizon are trying to convince the council that a law isn't necessary because they are working to fix the problem, but the only point discussed at a work session Monday evening was whether to allow 15 "business" days rather than the shorter calendar days in the original wording.

"That's nonsense," Lewis said about the cable firms' arguments. Several council members said their special assistants are spending up to four hours a week working to resolve these complaints.

Jon Mayhew, president of the Emerson Hill Homeowners Association in Oakland Mills, said the two cable firms left more than a dozen temporary cables in his community for months. He called, he said, and was told repair crews would fix the problem on a specific day.

"Of course, they never showed up," he said. In Hickory Ridge, a village employee told the council that cables have been strung through the air, across roads, over sheds and through trees - a practice the bill would specifically ban.

Lori Sherwood, the county's cable administrator, has been holding meetings for months with the cable firms trying to root out the practice, but she is still mystified about the long delays, she said.

"I have no idea" why it can take months to get a line buried, she said, and the firms' lobbyists offered no explanations either. "Customers are really fairly patient on these issues," Sherwood said, often waiting for several months before starting to complain. Her office got 75 complaints this year, she said, but many more people don't call her office.

Tara Potter, Verizon's lobbyist, told the council at a hearing on the bill Nov. 16 that the county can't legally require them to act more quickly because Verizon's authority to lay wires for all types of communications comes under a broad federal communications law enacted in 1934, not the cable-franchising laws that govern Comcast.

But Paul Johnson, deputy county solicitor, debunked that claim at the work session, assuring council members they do have the power to regulate health and safety issues involving cable franchise holders.

Still, Potter assured the council, "Verizon is extremely sensitive to the needs of the county." She's worked out a process for speeding things up, she said, and it needs a six-month trial period to see if it works. Her company opposes the bill because it might set a legal precedent, she said, though the proposed law is "reasonable and fair, though not necessary."

John Conwell, Comcast's lobbyist, said that 15 calendar days is too restrictive, since Comcast often must get Miss Utility to come and mark where other underground cables are located. Other utilities then must also respond, and sometimes county permits are required, too. Bad weather can interfere and delay action, he said, estimating it should take about 10 business days to get a cable placed under the sod.

Conwell said Sherwood's 75 complaints are just a small portion of the 2,910 cable "drops" done by the firm so far this year in Howard.

"We do attempt to take care of these problems," he told the council members. "We should keep perspective on the issue overall," he said.

Council members questioned both lobbyists closely, but showed no impatience.

"These 75 were the number of complaints, not the number of problems," said Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat.

"I think it is a problem. We want to solve the problem," said Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat.

Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents Hickory Ridge, said she went out to see wires strung across a road with Joan Lancos, who works for the village board. Lancos called the lines "ugly, intrusive and unsafe for residents." Sigaty didn't disagree.

"I have walked many a street and seen lines up in the trees," she said.

Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, asked Potter how she would suggest fixing the problem, if not with a new legal requirement. She said the county already controls construction permits, which might be a way to exercise leverage.

Under the proposed law, exceeding the 15-day limit without an extension would cost from $100 to $250 a day. Leaving a wire strung through the air or over trees or structures would cost from $500 to $1,000 a day.

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