Comcast Cablevision subscribers in Baltimore County will begin to see a payoff from the company's $100 million network upgrade by Oct. 30 as the cable franchise adds 20 new or expanded channels to its program lineup.
The cable company is expected to announce today that 40,000 customers in neighborhoods where the network has been rebuilt will receive five new and two expanded channels as part of its standard package at no additional cost.
The upgrade, which is expected to reach 65,000 of Comcast's 185,000 Baltimore County subscribers by the end of the year, will also add seven pay-per-view channels, three premium channels and three information channels, Comcast spokesman David Nevins said yesterday.
The expanded channel selections are expected to reach all of Comcast's subscribers in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties within two years, Mr. Nevins said.
In addition to the 20 channels being added in upgraded areas, subscribers throughout Baltimore County will begin to receive the popular American Movie Classics Channel on Channel 17 beginning Saturday. It replaces the Essex Community College channel, which moves to the slot of the defunct Dundalk Community College channel.
"AMC was the No. 1 most requested channel for us to add to the system," said Stephen A. Burch, regional senior vice president of Philadelphia-based Comcast Cable Communications.
Among the new channels that will be added to the standard package are Home & Garden TV, America's Talking, Comedy Central, The Television Food Network and The Prevue Channel. Two part-time channels, E! TV and CNBC, will expand to 24 hours a day. All will go on line by Oct. 30, Comcast said.
Mr. Burch said that under Federal Communications Commission rules, Comcast could have raised rates 20 cents a month for each additional channel but has chosen not to. He would not rule out some increase next year, but added that subscribers would not be confronted with "sticker shock."
The expanded channel offering comes at a time when the entire cable industry is attempting to improve its image in preparation for the onslaught of competitors using several pathways: telephone company networks, microwave "wireless cable" and direct-to-home satellite.
Bell Atlantic Corp. has announced plans to bring video vTC programming to the Baltimore area via the first two of those routes, but Mr. Burch said the expansion was not motivated by competitive concerns.
"I think we would have done the same whether Bell's coming at all," he said.
According to Comcast, the total number of channels available in upgraded areas will increase to 72 between now and Oct. 30, leaving it short of its capacity of 79 analog channels.
The Baltimore-area network upgrade, which was announced in March, is also expected to put in place the fiber-optic infrastructure necessary for the eventual addition of as many as 330 digital channels.
In the short term, the addition of seven pay-per-view channels will bring Comcast closer to offering what is known in the industry as "near video on demand" movie offerings, Mr. Nevins said.
Among the first parts of the Baltimore County system to be upgraded will be those in the Owings Mills-Pikesville and Dundalk-Eastpoint areas, according to Comcast. In Howard County, some parts of Columbia and Ellicott City will receive upgraded service before the end of the year, Mr. Burch said.
The upgrading of the Harford County system is in the planning process, he said.
Besides adding capacity and increasing the reliability of the Comcast systems in this area, the upgrade is also intended to lay the groundwork for an eventual move into telephone service in concert with Sprint Corp. and Teleport Communications Group.
Mr. Burch, who briefed members of the County Council about the upgrade project yesterday, said the company also plans to offer connections to the Internet and other on-line services.