Verizon meets its initial cable television hurdle

Now it has to sign up 75,000 customers, then the upcounty can expect service in three years

Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007

Verizon Communications has made cable television service available to 75,000 county households, a promise it made to County Council members when they unanimously approved the company’s franchise agreement in November.

Residents in parts of Wheaton, Kensington, Bethesda, Burtonsville, Garrett Park and Silver Spring can now order the fiber-optic cable service, or FiOs TV, company spokeswoman Christy Reap said. The service costs $42.99 a month and includes 200 digital channels.

This first group of residences is part of the initial service area where the company guaranteed to offer service to half the households within 12 months of signing the agreement. Next in the four-phase rollout plan are Takoma Park, Rockville, Twinbrook and parts of Silver Spring and Aspen Hill, which are scheduled to receive service within three years. Olney, Gaithersburg and parts of Potomac and Aspen Hill will receive service within four years. Service must be provided to at least half of residents in these areas to meet the franchise agreement’s requirements.

‘‘We’re meeting the rollouts predicted in the franchise agreement,” Reap said.

Service to Poolesville and the Agricultural Reserve are still on track to receive service within three years of Verizon signing up 75,000 customers. ‘‘There is a construction element to this, including laying cable lines, which is especially critical in outlying parts of the county,” Reap said.

The schedule for the upcounty was expedited after residents and County Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown complained about the original plan, which did not provide a guaranteed service date.

The 15-year agreement requires Verizon to pay the county an annual franchise fee of 5 percent of gross cable service revenues. Jane E. Lawton, the county’s cable administrator, said thus far the relationship has been amicable.

‘‘As I understand it, they have passed 78,000 homes [that can receive services]. They have a local manager who is working very hard, and so far our experience is excellent,” she said. ‘‘I think it will be a good thing for county customers to have cable competition.”

Verizon’s main cable competition is from Comcast, which offers new customers a ‘‘Triple Play” service bundle — digital television, telephone and high-speed Internet services — for $99 a month for a year. Existed customers can sign up for the services they don’t have for $33 a month, but they have to take all three services, a Comcast spokeswoman said.

During franchise negotiations with Verizon, Comcast representatives argued that the county’s agreement with Verizon was unfair and more lenient than its agreement.

‘‘We are very confident in our network, and in the products and services we deliver today in Montgomery County,” said Comcast spokeswoman Lisa Altman. ‘‘The phone company is simply trying to catch up to where we have been for years.”

More importantly, Altman said, is that all of Comcast’s services are already available countywide, unlike Verizon’s

Prince George’s officials approved a similar franchise agreement with Verizon in November. Reap said service will be available to about 80 percent of that county within three years.