Harford County residents will soon have another choice, and potentially a higher-speed one, when it comes to cable television service after a vote last night by the County Council.
The seven-member panel voted unanimously to grant Verizon Communications Inc. a 15-year franchise to operate within the county, making it the second major cable supplier to operate there. For years, most residents who wanted cable had to subscribe to Comcast.
"We consider this a very positive development," said Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, who represents the southern area of the county. "It gives the citizens an option, which they haven't had for years. It'll make the pricing more competitive and give people a look at both" companies' packages.
The deal grants Verizon an opportunity to bring into the county its FiOS, or fiber-optic, service. Traditional digital providers bring their fiber-optic connections to a common point, then distribute the signals to consumers' homes in electrical form. Verizon's fiber-optic system connects its cable directly to an outdoor converter box at the consumer's home.
That system, experts say, avoids bottlenecks that tend to limit a system's bandwidth, freeing greater capacity. The older format generally limits bandwidth to 750 MHz, which is split among cable TV, Internet and phone services.
"In comparison, FiOS TV devotes a whopping 860 MHz to digital video [alone]," wrote Gary Merson in Sound & Vision Magazine in 2006.
The council's decision makes Harford County the sixth jurisdiction in the state to which Verizon has brought the relatively new technology. The company offers FiOS to communities in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Verizon has spent $1.4 billion in Maryland, according to Joseph Daniels, the company vice president who spoke at last night's meeting.
Maryland is one of 14 states to which Verizon has brought the cable service in recent years in an aggressive nationwide campaign. More than 9.2 million homes in Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and eight other states receive the service.
"In terms of Internet service, we offer speeds in the neighborhood of 50 megabits per second," said Daniels, who has been working on the Harford County deal since last winter, when company executives approved the idea of approaching the county.
Daniels called the technology "future-proof." Once the physical infrastructure for the fiber-optic network has been laid, he said, the cables would accommodate such emerging technologies as telemedicine, through which doctors can diagnose illnesses "at light speed."
Verizon officials said construction has begun in Bel Air and Abingdon. The plan divides Harford County into nine "wire-center" zones. In the Bel Air and Abingdon zones, service would begin within one to three years. Officials described a "progressive build-out" that would get service started in the Edgewood and Havre de Grace zones within five years and in the Jarrettsville and Winters Run zones within seven years.
"It's very labor-intensive" to set up such a network, said Verizon spokeswoman Laurie Edwards, adding that county residents can check the company's Web site to track the progress of construction.
At the hearing that preceded the council meeting, public support for the measure was strong.
"This is probably the No. 1 issue in my neck of the woods," said Councilman Chad R. Shrodes, who represents the largely rural northern area of the county. "Not just for cable TV, but also for high-speed Internet, with so many more people working from home" nowadays.
"It would save money to have different, diverse products to choose from and give our businesses a chance to function more efficiently," said Paul Diggs of Edgewood, a small-business owner. Joe Heeke of Bel Air saw the matter in terms of the economic slowdown.
"In today's economic climate, if somebody wants to spend money in our county, it makes no sense to stop them," he said, to widespread applause.
Verizon will pay Harford County 3 percent of its income within the county, roughly the same deal that Comcast has had with Harford County.
Officials said Verizon plans to begin offering FiOS Internet and FiOS television in Aberdeen and other areas of the county in April.