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County approves Verizon cable TV

The communications company will be allowed to offer service in parts of the county, setting up a competitive situation for service.

By BILL VARIAN
Published February 2, 2006


TAMPA - Many residents in unincorporated Hillsborough County soon will have a choice in cable television providers to go along with their options for telephone and Internet service.

Hillsborough County commissioners on Wednesday voted 6-1 to approve a 15-year cable franchise agreement with Verizon Communications. The company hopes to roll out service to as many as 85,000 households primarily in northwestern Hillsborough starting in March, and 100,000 by midyear.

The deal does not include Tampa or Plant City.

"Welcome Verizon," said Hillsborough Commissioner Kathy Castor. "I know on behalf of my constituents, we welcome the competition."

The vote sets the stage for a house-by-house battle to offer digital television, high speed Internet and phone service, pitting Verizon against Hillsborough's main cable provider, Bright House Networks, along with Adelphia, which has a small cable territory in the county.

Commissioners also decided not to charge Verizon a per-customer fee, fearing it would raise residents' bills. And they dropped a demand to increase the number of public and government access channels. The mix of programming for those stations remains the subject of debate, though.

Verizon plans to offer initial service in the Carrollwood, Keystone and areas near Sulphur Springs, Temple Terrace and the University of South Florida over the next two years. Eastern portions of the county - including Brandon, Apollo Beach and Ruskin - would be offered service within five years.

The Wimauma and Sun City Center areas would come on line within seven years. Verizon will offer cable in the easternmost and least developed parts of the county as population density increases.

Hillsborough County joins Manatee County and the city of Temple Terrace as the third government in Florida to reach agreement with Verizon. The company is negotiating with the cities of Tampa and Bradenton, as well as Sarasota and Pasco counties.

"This is a big deal," said Alan F. Ciamporcero, president of the southeast region for Verizon. "Just like in politics, this is a big county."

Unlike satellite TV providers, cable companies must have the sanction of local government to get access rights of way where sewer lines and telephone poles also are located.

Hillsborough is the second biggest county in the nation to extend the welcome to Verizon next to Fairfax County, Va., outside of Washington, D.C.

Wednesday's approval gives Verizon its first major cable contract in Florida, a boost for its efforts in other parts of the nation, particularly Texas, Virginia, New York and Massachusetts.

Verizon has spent nearly $300-million installing fiber optic lines in the four Bay-area counties where it wants to operate. It has installed some 6.1-million feet of fiber optic line in Hillsborough since early 2004 in hopes of being able to offer its FiOS TV and high-speed Internet service.

Hillsborough residents have been clamoring for cable competition similar to that in Pinellas County, with the presumption it will result in lower rates.

There never appeared to be a doubt that commissioners would approve the deal Wednesday. But there was considerable debate - over how many access channels for public, government and educational programs to ask for in return.

The county staff had initially suggested that commissioners seek five access channels, one more than Bright House Networks provides now. They also suggested Verizon pay the county a 47-cent-per-customer, per-month fee to create a "public benefit fund" to help offset the cost of running those stations.

The county is negotiating with Bright House about renewing its franchise agreement and has been seeking the same fee and boost in channels. Bright House wants to offer three stations and has been running commercials that criticize the county position. Hundreds of e-mails and phone calls have come in protesting to the county.

On Wednesday, commissioners quickly dismissed the idea of charging a fee, in part a political recognition that it would be viewed as a tax.

Commissioner Brian Blair, the lone no-vote to the deal, advocated having fewer access stations and no fee, saying it would be another tax, and that government shouldn't be in the television business.

Commissioners jockeyed over four separate motions dealing with the fee and number of stations they would seek. Mark Sharpe won the day with a proposal to ask Verizon for the same thing it gets from Bright House now - four access stations, no fees.

The commissioner said that was the direction he took from people who contacted his office.

"I think the message was, they did not want to see an increase in the (access) channels," Sharpe said. "And they certainly don't want to see any fees."

Most of the speakers who addressed commissioners Wednesday spoke in favor of having the board keep its public and education access channels, with some seeking a second education channel.

A couple of people spoke against the fee.

"Calling this tax a public benefit fund is like calling a landfill a park," said Bob Vohnout.

Staff writer Lou Hau contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 2, 2006, 02:15:36]


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