Cable competition is skipping D.C.’s trendiest neighborhoods.
District officials these days are congratulating themselves for pulling off a stunt that few other cities have yet matched: competition in cable-TV service.
One of the nation’s most notorious monopolies, the cable industry is infamous for slow, surly service, as many D.C. residents are well-aware, having endured 13 years of flickering tyranny under District Cablevision.
Today, the vast majority of D.C. subscribers enjoy a choice between two cable companies: dominant provider Comcast Cablevision, which inherited the District Cablevision franchise, and Starpower Communications, an upstart with a more-channels-for-less-money pitch and fancy new services that have been luring customers away from the incumbent provider since 1998.
But thanks to D.C. utility regulations, unfortunate souls in large parts of Adams Morgan, Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown can’t get Starpower. For them, the choices are Comcast, satellite dish, a rooftop antenna, or rabbit ears. The access problem stems from the city’s insistence that Starpower connect these unserved neighborhoods via underground cables. The reason: Any further wiring above ground could interfere with firefighting efforts in these dense areas.
“We pay so much and get so few channels,” says Adams Morgan resident Colby DiSarro, who can’t catch her favorite show, Absolutely Fabulous, at home because her Comcast service lacks popular network Comedy Central. “We should have another choice,” she says.
It’s a departure from the D.C. conventional wisdom that all good things come to those west of Rock Creek Park, whereas residents in the city’s eastern reaches must settle for less. Traditionally neglected communities such as Ward 7 were the first to experience cable competition; more affluent areas are still waiting for it.
Starpower attorney Deborah Royster says that her company fully intends to extend service to “the small portions of the city” now unconnected. “It’s simply a question of timing and taking into account the economic forces in play,” she says.
Not to mention the arduous task involved in wiring up these parts of the city’s “fire zone” in compliance with city rules. Starpower insists that the underground requirement is unfair, given that Comcast’s existing lines in many of the same places run aboveground, along poles and through alleyways, and that the larger company simply plans to replace these lines with new fiber-optic cable as it rolls out a revamped system.
“If we are required to construct underground where Comcast is allowed to build aboveground, that puts us at a serious disadvantage,” Royster says, noting that underground construction can cost three times as much as aerial installation.
She says that Starpower has already shelled out some $350 million over the past four years to wire up nearly 80 percent of the District, phone pole by phone pole.
Going underground to connect the remaining fifth of the city would most definitely take another significant sum, and securing the financing for the project would be a tough sell, says Royster, citing recent financial “carnage” within the telecommunications sector. Royster says that the company will move forward “very cautiously.”
Wiring stipulations are sure to be a sticking point in upcoming negotiations between Starpower and District officials on a new long-term contract. Donald Fishman, general counsel for the District’s Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications (OCTT), says that the city is intent on seeing Starpower expand its service. The goal is befitting in light of a three-year study conducted by the Washington-based Institute for the Positive Use of Technology (InPUT), which listed “fostering a truly competitive market,” with a choice of two or more cable systems for all District residents, as the city’s top telecommunications priority.
According to Fishman, Starpower’s emergence not only helps cable customers hungry for more channels, it also empowers the city. Earlier this year, Fishman’s office concluded franchise-renewal negotiations with Comcast, under which the dominant provider agreed to a number of operating concessions in return for access to the city’s utility infrastructure. Without Starpower in the picture, says Fishman, the city would have had less leverage to extract favorable conditions from Comcast.
Comcast is pledging $72 million to modernize its cable system from an existing 450-megahertz Cosby-decade dinosaur to a state-of-the-art 860-megahertz broadband-era Cadillac—on a par with that of rival Starpower—within the next three years.
Such an upgrade will allow Comcast to offer high-speed Internet access and video-on-demand, as well as an expanded channel lineup—luxuries for years afforded only to Starpower subscribers.
Comcast is further committing, as part of the upgrade, to set the fiber-optic foundation for the city government’s long-awaited institutional telecommunications network, or “I-Net.” Such a network would link up District buildings via high-speed data, video, audio, and telephone connections, saving the government millions of dollars each year on communications costs, officials say.
“They’re feeling the squeeze,” Fishman says of Comcast, “and they want to compete.”
The OCTT would prefer to see Starpower and Comcast treated equally, Fishman says. That is, if one cable company is exempt from the fire-zone restrictions, its rival should be, too.
But it’s not up to the OCTT, he says. Only the District Division of Transportation has the authority to grant such exceptions.
Transportation spokesperson Bill Rice says that the department has received no request from either cable company to waive the regulation. Generally, such exemptions are granted to allow for maintenance or an extension of existing lines.
Rice says it’s unclear why incumbent operator Comcast, previously under different ownership, was permitted to circumvent the regulation in the past.
InPUT President Cynthia Pols, who took note of the obstacles to Starpower’s continued expansion in a report released last fall, says she thinks the smaller Starpower is simply getting the short end of the deal.
“If things were straight-up, Comcast would be required to go underground,” Pols says. “It doesn’t seem feasible to let Starpower build aerial lines and double the wiring in alleyways.”
Until the matter is resolved, cable-watchers in the uncompetitive pockets are confronted with a “double whammy,” she says.
Not only is the option of choosing Starpower indefinitely unavailable to them, but their neighborhoods are likely to be the last to experience the expanded services promised under Comcast’s system overhaul.
So far, Comcast has concentrated its massive revamping project in Wards 7 and 8, where Starpower began rolling out its services four years ago. For once, east-of-the-river residents are first in line.
“Turnabout is fair play,” says Ward 7 resident Angela Thompson-Murphy. However, she adds, even with competition, cable is still too expensive for many in her community. She will stick with her rabbit ears. CP