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Comcast to expand services here


Stephen B. Burke, president of Comcast Cable Communications Inc., says he's as amazed as anyone that the cable TV provider has emerged so quickly as the dominant cable franchise in the Baltimore-Washington area. He doesn't take the good fortune lightly.

Comcast cable franchises in the region stretch from Harford County to Northern Virginia and form the Philadelphia company's largest cluster, with close to 3 million viewers.

This gold mine is due in part to Comcast's recent purchase of a controlling stake in Jones Intercable Inc., gaining franchises in Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties and parts of Northern Virginia.

Early next year, Comcast will get the Baltimore and Washington franchises because of the divestiture forced by AT&T;'s merger with the current owner, Tele-Communications Inc.

Prior to these acquisitions, the company was the leading cable TV provider for Baltimore, Howard, and Harford counties.

Protecting and enhancing this "super cluster" will involve risk, foresight - and keeping an eye on priorities, said Burke, who was in town yesterday to receive an award for Comcast as Cablevision magazine's "Operator of the Year."

"We see the Baltimore market as a showplace. It's where we can show off our newest and best ideas," said Burke at the East Coast Cable 2000 trade show, where the award was presented.

Comcast Communications is the nation's third-largest cable franchise operator with a presence in 21 markets.

There are hurdles ahead, Burke concedes - the inroads satellite broadcasters are making, the sizable investment Comcast will need to make to upgrade the Baltimore and D.C. cable systems, and the tight labor market, which has made retaining skilled employees a top priority.

A key element in Burke's strategy is to use Comcast's enviable top-dog position in the region to entice new customers with interesting services.

"If we don't offer them, someone else will. We have to be known as a technology leader. That's how you attract customers," said the 42-year-old New York City native.

Gaining customers for Comcast's enhanced digital cable service, Digital Plus, is a top priority, he said.

The service is aimed at putting Comcast's programming on a par with satellite competitors, such as DirecTV, which have marketed heavily in the region.

Burke declined to say how many Digital Plus subscribers the company hopes to sign up in the next 12 months.

Digital Plus allows users to order movies with a click of the remote control. Last month, Baltimore County became the first market in the nation to receive the service, said Burke.

High-speed service

The company plans to offer high-speed data and telephone services to businesses via its upgraded fiber-optic cable system, he said.

"We think this will be a great business for us. It's a way to really leverage our fiber-optic capability," said Burke, formerly president of Disney Corp.'s ABC Broadcasting Group.

"There are a lot of small and medium-sized businesses that want high-speed service, but are having difficulty getting hooked up to DSL. And we think our service will offer advantages over DSL, " he said.

He anticipates that the company will begin to offer that service through its new Comcast Business Communications unit next year.

Residential phones

Burke and other cable operators see the residential telephone market as a potential mother lode.

Even though the company has been testing telephone service at a franchise in Virginia, Burke is cautious about going after the market too soon.

For one, he said, there are complex technology issues to be addressed.

And two, the company will need to iron out a deal with a large telephone company to ensure quality service. It has a tentative agreement with AT&T.;

Still, the executive predicts, Comcast will begin offering residential telephone service in the Baltimore-Washington market in two to three years.

Retail sales

Another area he thinks the company needs to move into is sales of its services and equipment through retail outlets.

Satellite TV broadcasters have been using retail outlets, such as Best Buy, for some time as a way to gain exposure for their service.

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