A BIG-SCREEN Sony Trinitron occupies a corner of the lobby of the Mayor's Office of Cable & Communications on East Fayette Street, across the street from City Hall. Any day now it will be hooked up to cable service.
Ironically, the city agency responsible for monitoring the long construction of the United Cable of Baltimore system is located in one of the remaining "holes" still not connected to the 67-channel service.
The good news is that, six years after the beginning of the wiring process (and in many cases a year or two behind original projections), most Baltimore City residents now have access to cable. More than 90,000 homes currently subscribe. The bad news is that thousands are still waiting because of a variety of technical and other reasons.
"For all intents and purposes, the system is finished," says Euan F. Fannell, president and general manager of United Cable. Yet he concedes the connection of unserved areas, particularly the wiring of apartment buildings concentrated in downtown, "is a process that will be going on for years."
United's first ad campaign, which was broadcast on local stations last month, drew a flurry of complaints from people who responded to the solicitation, only to be told that cable service could not be provided to their homes.
"Our biggest complaint is still people trying to get service," acknowledges Joyce Jefferson Daniels, who heads the mayor's cable office. But such factors as the difficulty of laying underground cables in downtown, reluctance by some landlords permit wiring of their buildings and difficulty gaining easements from private property owners for cable equipment are among the reasons some residents still are not served.
The operating efficiency of United Cable, which won the city's cable franchise in 1984, has also come under fire.
"I'm told that this is classic for any cable system that is still being built . . . but, yes, I am still frustrated at the pace. We have an awful lot of constituents to get service for," says Mary Pat Clarke, City Council president. Last March, Clarke held a noisy hearing at which scores of residents voiced displeasure with the cabling of Baltimore.
"There are individual cases where the cable actually runs near the house, and they can't seem to get it together to provide service," says Betty Deacon, chief of staff for Clarke. She says she forwards a half dozen or more service complaints a week to United for investigation.
However, Clarke acknowledges there has been an improvement in United's performance since the winter. And Daniels says the addition of customer service personnel and the implementation of a special unit to pursue connection questions have noticeably improved matters.
How many residences do not have access to cable? A precise number is hard to come by. According to United figures, perhaps 33,000 apartment units and less than 1,000 individual homes are waiting.
The majority of these are downtown. But Cedric Crump, coordinating technician in the mayor's cable office, says some of the biggest downtown high-rise residence buildings, such as the Park Charles and Westminster House units, should be reached by cable by mid-January. The buildings are already internally wired, awaiting access to the main cable line.
Cabling apartments can be a complicated process. Landlords must grant "right of entry" to the cable system to internally wire the buildings, and United has a full-time official whose job is negotiating these agreements. Fannell says that about 20,000 apartment units have been added this year.
According to United commercial development manager Joy Davison, there are about 82,000 apartment dwelling units in the city. Of these, 68,000 are now covered by right of entry agreements with United and about 49,000 have gained access to cable and are being solicited for subscription. The remainder are "in some forward progressive stage," waiting for landlord agreements, internal wiring or the arrival of the basic trunk cable line on the building's doorstep.
The cabling of downtown is particularly slow because all utilities are located underground. Where possible, TV cable is sharing conduits used by electric and phone lines. But in other places, United is drilling new conduits through subsurface rock layers.
Other downtown construction projects, such as the subway line and road work, can also delay the progress of cable.
Smaller pockets where the system is slowly adding potential customers, according to Crump, include a portion of the Bolton Hill area (delayed because of the need for underground cabling and private easements), Little Italy (where the lack of alleys and utility poles creates problems), the Otterbein area, south of the Inner Harbor, the Cloverdale/Canterbury section near Guilford, the Parr Avenue area of northwest Baltimore and the St. Helena section of Dundalk.
Crump says that one longtime problem area, the Guilford neighborhood, recently became completely served. Reluctance by some homeowners to permit United Cable to use private property to anchor utility poles required door-to-door resolution involving the community association and representatives of the mayor's office and the cable company.
The St. Helena/Dundalk situation drew many complaints at last winter's hearings. Fannell concedes United was initially reluctant serve the area's 40 or so homes, which extend into the city limits from Baltimore County. To reach the neighborhood, he says, cable had to cross roughly four miles of non-residential areas, and the system originally hoped that Comcast Cablevision of Baltimore County could serve those customers instead.
The plan did not fly, however. In part that was because the city system is larger by approximately 30 channels and in part because, "We told them we don't have a franchise with anybody but United, and the franchise requires all city homes to be served," says Daniels of the mayor's cable office. The line is now being strung, and technician Crump says service is slated for spring.