Verizon Sues Maryland County over Cable Service

 
 
By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2006-06-30
 
 
 
A spokesperson for Verizon Communications told eWEEK June 30 that Verizon has filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Greenbelt, Md., against Montgomery County, Md. The suit, which was filed on Thursday, June 29, claims that the countys cable franchise agreement violates federal law and infringes on the Verizons Constitutional rights.

The suit asks for a preliminary injunction asking the court to invalidate the county cable franchise law and to require the county to negotiate a legal franchise with Verizon.

Verizon, headquartered in New York, is currently attempting to offer its FiOS service in the suburbs of Washington, which include this affluent Maryland county. FiOS service includes television and broadband Internet access.

Click here to read more about Verizons FiOS digital TV service.

"Providing cable service is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment," said Verizon spokesperson Harry Mitchell. Mitchell is director of media relations for Verizons Mid-Atlantic region.

"Local laws that license speakers must spell out fairly narrow and objective standards that limit the discretion of government officials in whether to grant a franchise and under what conditions," Mitchell said. He said Verizon feels that the current franchise law gives local officials too much discretion.

Mitchell also said the company is taking issue with Montgomery Countys ordinance that, he says, violates federal law by regulating its phone service and broadband service. "The minute we start providing cable service, they would have rules governing construction, operation and maintenance of telephone and broadband service thats specifically prohibited by federal law," he said.

He noted that Verizon has provided phone service to Montgomery County for over a century.

Officials in the Maryland county suggest that the real reasons for Verizons lawsuit are more to do with the communications bill currently pending in Congress. "I think it really isnt about Montgomery County, its about Verizons attempt to influence federal legislation," Marilyn Praisner said in an interview with eWEEK. Praisner is vice president of the Montgomery County Council, and committee chair for the Management and Fiscal Policy Committee, which includes cable television issues.

Verizon sues Vonage over VOIP (voice over IP). Read more here.

"Verizon just doesnt want to play by the same rules: They havent submitted a franchise application," Praisner said, adding that when Verizon representatives appeared before her committee, she was told that the company would submit a franchise application, but so far that hasnt happened.

Praisner said that if Verizon didnt like the standard franchise agreement that other cable operators have signed, they could have red-lined the parts they didnt like, and submitted the changed version for negotiation, but she said the company hasnt done that, either.

"I dont think its rocket science," Praisher said. "Verizon really doesnt want to play by those same rules. This is about a cable franchise; thats the arena in which they want to play."

Montgomery Countys chief administrative officer, Bruce Romer, said in a statement that the countys franchise process is in compliance with federal law, and that the county is committed to video competition in the county.

"The County intends to vigorously defend its lawful processes, which are designed to create fair and open competition for the benefit and protection of consumers while treating all cable providers equally," Romer said in the statement.

Mitchell said Verizon has already reached agreements on franchises in 13 other municipalities in the Washington area, and that deployment is already moving ahead in most of them.

Mitchell also said citizens of Montgomery County have been pressuring the county government to reach agreement with Verizon, if only because the company carries the full schedule of the beloved Washington Nationals baseball team, which its chief competitor, Comcast, has failed to accomplish.

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