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United Artists delays upgrade It may be done in '96; city franchise to adopt name of parent, TCI; City's cable system to change name, delay upgrade


Baltimore's cable television system, which had been expected to announce by this fall that it would invest millions of dollars to upgrade its network, has pushed its plans into 1996 at the earliest -- a development that left the city's cable administrator "shocked."

Instead, United Artists Cable of Baltimore City will announce later this month that it will drop that tarnished name and do business under the name TCI -- the initials of its parent Tele-Communications Inc.

Coles Ruff, the cable company's general manager, said the company's Oct. 17 news conference will be a "celebration of going to the TCI name" and a way to thank its employees for improving United Artists' service in recent months.

There will be no announcements about new investments in technology, he said.

Cedric Crump, the city's cable administrator, found little to celebrate in the news of the name change, although he confirmed that United Artists' service has improved "significantly" since its well-publicized troubles earlier this year.

"I'd rather see an announcement of an upgrade in services or technology," he said.

Mr. Crump said he had been expecting news along the lines of Comcast Cablevision's March announcement that it would invest least $100 million to rebuild its systems in the Baltimore suburbs to create an advanced fiber-optic network.

"We had been told that by the end of the year something would be in place, that we would have something on paper. That's what I was looking forward to," said Mr. Crump.

At the time Comcast made its announcement that it would upgrade its network, Mr. Ruff told The Sun that the city system was likely to announce an upgrade in late summer or early fall.

Yesterday, Mr. Ruff said delays in the development of digital technologies had held up TCI's plans.

Mr. Ruff said it was still his "hope and desire" that the cable company would be able to announce an upgrade in January 1996, but he said Englewood, Colo.-based TCI had not yet signed off on a proposal he has made.

"I'm pretty positive it'll be allocated," he said. LaRae Marsik, a TCI spokeswoman in Colorado, said the company was currently in the middle of its budget process and that she could not say what the chances of a Baltimore upgrade were.

The delay means that the city's more than 97,000 cable subscribers will have to wait longer for a rebuilt system capable of providing improved picture quality, channel capacity and reliability.

If an eventual TCI upgrade is similar to Comcast's, the network presumably would be capable of delivering competitive telephone service and high-speed Internet access, as well as other advanced services.

United Artists' move to change its name comes seven months after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke issued an ultimatum telling the company to improve its service or face fines for defaulting on its franchise agreement.

The mayor's warning came after the city received numerous complaints that United Artists was failing to provide timely installation of cable converter boxes.

The incident was just one in a string of run-ins between the city government and the cable system over its service problems.

Mr. Crump said that TCI is a more nationally recognized brand name for a cable company.

"Here on the local level, I don't know what it's going to do," he said.

Gary Arlen, a Bethesda-based telecommunications consultant, said that by changing to the TCI name, the company will be able to wrap Baltimore into a national marketing campaign designed to bolster the company's image.

"TCI's general reputation is that they're the biggest because they're the baddest. They're cheap, mean, they fiddle around with programs because they're vertically integrated," he said, referring to the company's ownership position in various program providers.

"They have this perception that they promise you anything but they change their mind," Mr. Arlen added.

Ms. Marsik said the company is working hard to establish TCI as a trusted brand name.

"TCI is diligently working in areas of superior customer service and image-building to get who we are, what we do and the markets that we serve recognized," she said.

Mr. Ruff said that when the TCI affiliate holds its Oct. 17 news conference, it will not be announcing any new channels because the system is effectively at its capacity, except for some public channels it cannot use without city permission.

He said the company currently offers 74 channels -- more than most systems in the area.

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