Comcast to expand basic services


Comcast Cablevision will announce today an extensive rebuilding of its cable networks in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, promising its 275,000 local subscribers vastly expanded program choices and 90 percent fewer outages within two years.

The Philadelphia-based company says the project will provide digital-quality pictures and sound while almost doubling the number of channels in the near term. The upgrade, which is expected to cost between $100 million and $130 million, will also lay the groundwork for an eventual expansion to a 400-channel system with connections to on-line services and the Internet, Comcast said.

Comcast will announce the upgrade, under which it already has begun to deploy an estimated 1,500 miles of fiber-optic cable, at a news conference to be attended by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, area county executives and Maryland business leaders.

The cable company said the project, which it expects to create about 200 jobs, is the largest upgrade ever undertaken by Comcast, the nation's third-largest cable company.

David H. Nevins, president of Nevins & Associates and a spokesman for Comcast, said the changes will probably mean "modestly higher" bills for most subscribers.

"You wouldn't invest $130 million if you didn't think it meant more revenue," he said.

Mr. Nevins noted that any increases in the enhanced basic service, the one most subscribers take, is limited by FCC rules. Under those regulations, a cable company can add new channels, but it can charge only for adding five a year.

"Clearly the majority of the channel capacity will be used for optional channels and service," Mr. Nevins said. He said that subscribers whose connections are upgraded early will receive some new channels shortly after work is completed but that the full range of new programming won't be available until the entire project has been finished.

The announcement is a clear sign that a high-powered alliance of Sprint Corp., Comcast and two other big cable companies has chosen Baltimore as the first market in which it will offer its "one-stop shopping" approach to marketing telecommunications.

The Sprint-Cable Venture, as it will be known until a permanent name is chosen, plans to offer local phone service, long distance, wireless communications, cable TV and on-line services under a single brand name. Tele-Communications Inc., which owns the cable systems in Baltimore and Annapolis, and Cox Cable Communications also are partners in the venture.

Clash with Bell Atlantic

The Comcast project sets up a clash of telecommunications giants as Bell Atlantic Corp. rolls out its planned "video dial tone" system over the next several years. The regional phone company has been eyeing the cable industry's video customers just as hungrily as the cable companies have been salivating over the immense revenues generated by local telephone service.

"We are not announcing today that we're going into the telephone business," said Mr. Nevins. "But we will have the technical capability to go into the telephone business."

Bell Atlantic spokesman Dave Pacholczyk said Comcast's Baltimore-area upgrade is "one of the things we're going to take into account" in setting his company's own priorities.

"What we're seeing now is Comcast's competitive response to our plans," said Mr. Pacholczyk. He noted that Bell Atlantic asked the Federal Communications Commission last June for permission to build video systems in parts of Baltimore and five ++ other markets but was still waiting for an approval.

Consequently, Bell Atlantic's plans to bring video services to Baltimore this year have likely slipped into 1996.

400 channels

Mr. Nevins said the upgrade will let Comcast expand its channel offerings from about 50 analog channels to "more than 80" when the new technology is in place. Advances in digital video compression, a technology that lets a provider squeeze more channels onto a single cable, should let the company expand its offerings to about 400 digital channels before the end of the decade, he added.

Mr. Nevins said Comcast is "looking at every decent cable channel ever requested" for the expanded programming. Among those under consideration are the Golf Channel, CNN International and Univision, a Spanish language channel.

One feature Mr. Nevins said the rebuilt system will likely incorporate is a "time-shifting" service such as the Bethesda-based Discovery Channel's Your Choice TV. With such a service, viewers who miss "Seinfeld" on Thursday night will be able to "shift" it to Friday or Saturday for a fee of roughly $1, he said.

Also among the services Comcast expects to offer are on-line services and a link to the Internet, Mr. Nevins said. Other channels could be devoted to interactive functions such as shopping and home banking, he said.

The upgrade will convert 17,000 customers in the Pikesville-Owings Mills area to the modernized system within the next few weeks, Mr. Nevins said. Other customers will be added as work progresses through mid-1997.

He estimated that the rebuilt network will reduce outages by 90 percent by replacing today's coaxial cable system -- much of which is close to 20 years old -- with fiber-optic ring architecture similar to that used by phone companies.

Such rings allow calls, or in this case programs, to be routed along alternative paths when a cable is cut or damaged.

Comcast said the use of fiber-optic cable in place of coaxial cable will leave the system far less vulnerable to lightning strikes and electrical interference.

Essentially, all coaxial cable would be replaced except for the final drop running from the neighborhood node to homes.

Leaving the final stretch of coaxial cable means Comcast won't have to dig up every subscriber's lawn or driveway, Mr. Nevins said.

"The existing wiring people have in their homes is fine," he said. "We don't need to go into people's homes to do this construction."

Comcast, with more than 3.5 million subscribers nationwide, holds franchises for all of Baltimore and Harford counties and the eastern part of Howard County, which includes the population centers of Columbia, Ellicott City and Elkridge. The company employs about 500 people in Maryland.

City viewers not affected

While the rebuilding is expected to improve the lot of suburban cable subscribers, it will not affect customers of the city's beleaguered United Artists Cable, which has been hurt by a shortage of equipment.

Industry sources say Comcast has let TCI know that it would be interested in buying the system or swapping it for one in another market. So far, TCI has shown no interest, they said.

Coles Ruff, general manager for United Artists, said the city system is likely to announce an upgrade in late summer or early fall. He said the rebuilding will be less extensive than Comcast's because United Artists already has enough capacity to carry 74 channels.

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