Underground boom is hitting Maryland


Darnell Harrington is helping to rewire Maryland for the 21st century.

A big, brawny man, he stood one recent Friday on Shawan Road near Interstate 83, a flexible orange plastic tube looped around his waist. Through that tube snaked yard after yard of thick black cable made up of 60 glass strands -- each capable of carrying vast streams of voice, video and data from Hunt Valley to the world outside.

It was another day, another mile for Mr. Harrington and the rest of the crew from Baltimore-based CableCo, one of dozens of companies that are building a vast new communications infrastructure for Maryland. It's a booming business, with telephone and cable companies rushing to build state-of-the-art

networks to compete in the coming telecommunications free-for-all.

"We've been all over the place," said Allen Witherspoon, a construction worker in the CableCo crew. "From Washington, D.C., back to Baltimore."

The work is largely invisible to most Marylanders, but cumulatively the rewiring of Maryland is an enormous construction project -- a kind of subterranean Camden Yards. Crews are working day and night digging trenches, laying cable along highways, stringing it from poles or running it from manhole to manhole under city streets.

There are some visible signs of the work. If you regularly drive along Maryland's major highways between rush hours, you might have wondered why you keep running into traffic backups because of closed lanes. Often, it's not road work but a crew burying cable.

This is congestion with an economic payoff, however. Maryland officials say there are no firm figures on how much money or how many jobs these cable-laying projects are bringing to the state, but clearly they are putting dinner on the table for hundreds if not thousands of Marylanders.

"It pays the bills and it keeps you in shape," said Mr. Harrington, a laid-off security guard who says laying cable pays a lot better than his former job.

Fiber-optic networks are under construction all over the country, but Maryland is "most definitely a hotbed" of activity, said Kevin Pelletier, construction manager for Premier Cable Communications Co., a Florida-based company that is laying cable for Comcast Corp. in Howard County.

A major reason is Maryland's early embrace of competition in the local telephone industry.

The state's open door to potential challengers to the Bell Atlantic monopoly and its willingness to make its rights of way available for telecommunications have encouraged a variety of new players to build state-of-the-art fiber-optic networks here.

At the same time, the emerging competition has energized some local cable companies -- notably Comcast, which is pouring more than $100 million into rebuilding its three cable systems in the Baltimore area.

The project will involve laying some 2,000 miles of conventional coaxial cable and another 1,000 miles of fiber-optic cable, said Comcast regional vice president Stephen Burch.

CableCo, with 16 employees, has worked as a contractor or subcontractor for Comcast, United Artists Cable of Baltimore, MCI and New York-based Teleport Communications Group.

For now, TCG's core business is giving companies an alternative to Bell Atlantic Corp. for connecting to long distance networks.

But within the next year or two, the company is expected to be competing head-to-head with Bell Atlantic for local service as part of an alliance between long-distance carrier Sprint Corp. and cable operators Comcast Corp., Tele-Communications Inc. and Cox Cable Enterprises.

TCG general manager Larry Bugden said his company has subcontracted its network construction to 100-150 local workers and is "keeping them pretty busy." And he said that as long as the regulatory climate remains hospitable, there's no end in sight to the company's investment.

"It's an ever-expanding network," he said.

TCG is not alone. MCI Communications Corp. and MFS Communications Corp. also have received the go-ahead from the state Public Service Commission to compete with Bell Atlantic in the business arena, and both have been planting cable along roads and highways throughout central Maryland. Even Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., which has no announced telecommunications plans or partnerships, has been quietly building a cable network capable of carrying much more traffic than it can use internally.

Later this year, TCI's United Artists Cable of Baltimore is expected to announce an extensive network upgrade. And Bell Atlantic, despite recent delays, is expected to soon clarify its plans for what could be the largest project of all -- a fully digital, two-way video network in the Washington suburbs and Baltimore.

Staying busy

As these networks are built out, the work will eventually slow down, but local cable construction executives say they are too busy to think much about that now.

"There should be a lot of work for years to come," said Patrick Fox, president of Patron Communications of Maryland Inc., who moved his company from Syracuse, N.Y., to Annapolis 19 years ago to escape the harsh winters that plague cable construction in upstate New York.

"The biggest problem right now is finding quality help," he said. "The type of work we do is hard work, physical work."

The recent job CableCo was handling in Hunt Valley illustrates just how labor-intensive the job of building a network can be.

Laying about a mile of cable involved a day's work by six CableCo construction workers and a construction manager, Mr. Sams. Kelly Simmons, an engineer for TCG, supervised the construction, while two MCI employees showed up to make sure the interconnection to an MCI manhole went smoothly.

This was just the second phase of the TCG operation.

Previously, another contractor had dug the trenches, built the underground vault and laid the four-inch "conduit" through which CableCo would run the fiber-optic cable.

For this job, CableCo was running the cable into the Hunt Valley office building, but Mr. Sams said that work usually goes to a separate subcontractor that specializes in the indoor work.

"The inside and the outside don't normally mix very well. We're a dirtier bunch," Mr. Sams said.

To avoid tying up rush hour traffic, the crew didn't put up its traffic cones until about 9:30 a.m.

This particular job didn't require closing anything but the shoulder, but often lanes must be shut for the safety of the workers.

"So many people who drive on the interstates aren't really paying attention to anything but the cars around them," said Ms. Simmons, standing beside I-83 and wishing she had worn work boots rather than white shoes.

For a 34-year-old, college-educated woman with a responsible job, Ms. Simmons spends a lot of time on the shoulders of interstate highways. She said she's overseen the installation of about 100 miles of cable over the past three months.

Ms. Simmons was keeping tabs on three crews that day. Besides the one pulling cable, another was digging trenches and another doing restoration work.

Dangers of work

The digging is the part that can get dangerous, she said. TCG's network is sharing a right of way with all the utilities that came before it, and the crews must take care not to hit another company's lines.

"The worst case is always gas as far as the public is concerned. As far as the backhoe operator is concerned, power can be pretty dangerous," said Ms. Simmons.

For that reason, the crews do a lot of hand-digging when #F working around utility lines, she said.

Even then, a crew error or a faulty map can result in severe inconvenience -- if not catastrophe.

In January, an Apollo Trenching Co. crew hit a gas line while laying cable for Prestige Cable Television in the Autumn Ridge neighborhood of Westminster.

The resulting explosion destroyed one home, damaged 65 others and caused more than $1 million in damage.

In another recent case, a power line cut left White Marsh Mall without electricity for several hours.

With more crews laying more cable than ever before, more incidents like these are the likely downside of telecommunications construction boom.

But Ms. Simmons is taking the positive view, concentrating on the benefits of the competition her cable network will bring to Maryland.

"It takes some time to get it up and running, but there is a lot of business -- get those phone bills down," she said.

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