Comcast agrees to link Anne Arundel offices, schools


Comcast Cablevision has agreed to spend $5 million over the next three years to bring interactive video capabilities to Anne Arundel County schools, fire stations and other government buildings and to add two cable channels dedicated to public, education and government programming.

The pledge is at the heart of a six-year franchise agreement that the Philadelphia-based company and county officials have tentatively reached. The County Council is expected to approve the pact next month.

"I think it's a quantum leap forward," County Executive Janet S. Owens said yesterday at a news conference announcing the agreement, which both sides said was forged during sometimes contentious negotiations.

According to the agreement, Comcast would pay the county 5 percent of its annual gross revenue as a franchise fee. That is expected to mean $1.5 million a year that the county can spend as it wishes - a $350,000 increase over the current fee.

Comcast also has agreed to improve customer service, with the county gaining new power to ensure those standards are met.

"These are significant pluses," said Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat.

Comcast is the county's largest provider of cable television, with about 80,000 subscribers. It is undertaking a $75 million system upgrade countywide that, among other things, will give subscribers high-speed Internet access.

A second cable company, Millennium Digital Media, has 56,000 subscribers in the northern section of the county, according to Anne Arundel cable officials.

Half of the $5 million up-front payment from Comcast to the county would help expand tra-County Institutional Networkfrom 16 locations to 112 within three years.

That would link nearly every middle and high school, all county offices, fire stations, police stations and Anne Arundel Community College to the same fiber-optic network.

The high-speed link would make interactive video communication possible. A teacher could instruct students in schools across the county and then take questions or comments from those students. Or firefighters could take part simultaneously in a video training session from their respective stations. Firefighters also would have the option of downloading the session to watch later.

Another possibility would be to augment the high school equivalency program for county jail inmates. "Instead of trying to get instructors out there, they could do it remotely," said John Lyons, the county's cable television administrator.

Elementary schools would not be linked because they do not need high-speed connections, said Victor Sulin, the county's director of cable communications. "Most of what elementary schools need can be provided over basic modems, the kind you would use at home," he said.

The other half of the $5 million would be earmarked for expansion of public, education and government channels. There are now two channels, but one is used by schools internally, Sulin said.

When the I-net is built out, Comcast would add two stations so that one each would be dedicated for public access, the community college, the school board and county government.

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