The Herndon Town Council yesterday agreed to let Verizon Communications Inc. begin offering cable television service, putting the small Northern Virginia city at the forefront of a developing battle between the nation's major telephone and cable companies.
By a 6 to 0 vote, the council approved Verizon's request to compete with Cox Communications Inc., which holds a monopoly cable franchise for the city of 22,000.
Though city officials said they were disappointed that Verizon rejected some of its requests -- including one that the company bury fiber-optic cables it recently strung alongside its old copper telephone lines -- they decided in the end that competition for cable service would benefit consumers.
"Competition is best for the community," said council member Steven D. Mitchell, who initially moved to deny Verizon's request because of its refusal to bury all of its lines but ultimately voted for the measure.
Herndon is the first locality in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast to approve Verizon's move into cable, but it will probably be several months before the company negotiates enough programming agreements, hires the necessary workers, sets prices and actually begins selling the service.
"We don't plan to make it generally available to customers until we know they will have a great experience," said Robert W. Woltz, head of Verizon's operations in Virginia.
Verizon said it has already signed programming agreements with 10 NBC-affiliated networks, 11 Showtime Networks Inc. channels, the Starz Entertainment Group LLC, Discovery Communications Inc. and A&E Television Networks, among others.
So far, the company also has asked permission to market cable service in Howard County and the city of Bowie in Maryland. But that list is likely to expand as Verizon enters more deeply into the core business of Cox, Comcast Corp. and other cable companies.
Just as Verizon wants to pump television programming through its fiber-optic lines, companies such as Cox are offering phone service over the broadband Internet connections that have become an important part of their business.
Ultimately, all the companies foresee offering a bundle of voice, data and television service -- a fact that could drive down prices.
Cox officials said that they welcomed competition but that they wanted to make sure the agreements ensured a level playing field. They pointed to their 221-page franchise agreement with Herndon compared with Verizon's much smaller submission.
"We don't want to come across as anti-competitive," said Gary T. McCollum, vice president and region manager of Cox. "But at the same time, we want to make sure that as they enter the cable industry they follow the same rules that we follow."