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Comcast may get competition in Sarasota County; Access Network picks up a franchise application for cable in Sarasota County

Wed, 05/21/2003 - 8:00pm
Staff

Copyright 2003 Sarasota Herald-Tribune Co.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune (Florida)

May 21, 2003 Wednesday All Editions

Access Network has expressed an interest in competing with Comcast Cable for television subscribers in Sarasota County.

The company picked up a franchise application from Sarasota County and is considering taking on Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator, county officials said.

Sarasota County never has had an agreement with a second cable company, although its pact with Comcast is a non-exclusive one.

To simplify the process of letting another company into the market, Sarasota County officials are considering amending an ordinance to allow them to alter procedures for striking a franchise agreement without having to hold a public hearing before making the changes.

"We've got an opportunity out there, so we thought maybe it would be in our best interest to go ahead and finalize the steps," said Bill Brown, who heads the county's fiscal planning department and represents the county in cable franchise negotiations.

It's unclear whether Access Network is an independent start-up or a division of a larger telecommunications company, and whether it has plans to offer voice service along with cable TV service. Access Network officials did not return calls seeking comment on the application.

Rod Dagenais, Comcast's area vice president, said he had not heard of Access Network, but has seen cable competition elsewhere in the state. Comcast shares part of the market in Lake County, another area Dagenais oversees, with a small cable company called ClearLink Communication.

"It boils down to who provides the best service and the value for the money," Dagenais said.

Without knowing much about the company or its services, Dagenais said it's hard to tell how Comcast's business and marketing strategies would change.

Mark Kersey, a cable and broadband analyst with Current Analysis, a telecommunications consulting and analysis firm based in La Jolla, Calif., said he has not heard of Access Network.

The deals that Sarasota County historically has had with Comcast, and the one it could strike with Access Network, are complicated agreements that typically take between two to three years to complete.

Philadelphia-based Comcast pays the county a franchise fee of 5 percent of its gross revenues from customer accounts in the county. The county makes about $2.3 million annually from the fee, Brown said.

Next year, county officials will start the renewal process for Comcast's franchise agreement, which expires in 2007, Brown said.

County commissioners are expected to vote on the ordinance amendment after a public hearing on May 28, but won't move forward on a franchise agreement until they hear from Access Network, Brown said. "There's no next step until they file an application," he said.

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