Area cable companies say a Verizon Communications Inc. project to dig up streets and lay a fiber-optic network has been poorly managed, leading to rising damage costs and customer complaints as Verizon's crews cut through other companies' lines.
Verizon counters that the cable companies are shifting blame for their own problems in the face of new competition in providing television services.
The battle is a microcosm of a larger fight between the phone and cable industries, as the local companies take aim at each other's customers in a race to grab Internet, phone and television subscribers.
"Clearly, because of the intensity of the Verizon project, we do know that damages are up significantly" over the past year and a half, said Kenneth J. Schrad, director of information for the Virginia State Corporation Commission. The commission tries to resolve damage complaints through an advisory board.
Commission data show that since July 2004, the state has received 634 reports of cable, gas or other lines being damaged by contractors working to put in the Verizon fiber network, 302 of which have resulted in either fines or settlements. The maximum penalty is $2,500, and one Verizon contractor, Ivy H. Smith Co. of Herndon, has paid $35,300 in penalties. Maryland does not maintain records of such incidents, a spokeswoman at the state Public Service Commission said.
Representatives of Ivy H. Smith did not return phone calls.
Last year, Verizon began digging up streets and running fiber-optic cables to homes and businesses in the area with the intention of offering television and faster Internet service over those new lines so it could better compete against its cable rivals. The phone company, which now sells its Fios Internet service in Falls Church, Leesburg, Herndon, Arlington and parts of Montgomery County, says it has beefed up its "damage prevention unit" in Maryland and Virginia to 146 people, whose job is to keep cable, electric, gas and water utilities from being damaged in the process.
"By and large, we're doing a good job of it," said Harry Mitchell, a spokesman for Verizon.
"It's an aggressive project. We're doing it as safely and unobtrusively as we can," Mitchell said. But cable companies are also inflating the cost and impact of the damage because Verizon represents new competition for them, he said. "Comcast has been all about shifting blame."
Since July of last year, Comcast has spent $1 million on fixes in Maryland alone, and has made 6,000 related damage repairs, said John Eichhorn, Comcast regional director for construction in Maryland and Delaware. Customer complaints concerning related outages have resulted in tens of thousands of additional calls, the company said.
For example, damage to a bundle of 30 fiber-optic lines in Germantown at the intersection of Neerwinder Street and Neerwinder Place caused 1,000 Comcast customers to lose service in September, the cable company said.
"Verizon's not properly managing the project. They're not policing their contractors and subcontractors," Eichhorn said. Every two weeks, he meets with counterparts at Verizon to discuss damage prevention, but to no avail, he said. "Things have not improved. If anything, it's gotten worse . . . because of the sheer speed and magnitude with which Verizon is trying to do this project."
Cox Communications Inc., which operates in Fairfax, has spent about $250,000 so far this year in 500 incidents of Verizon-related damage, said Kathryn Falk, vice president of government affairs for Cox in Northern Virginia. "The amount of damage is dramatic," she said. "Even compared to years when there's construction, that's off the charts."
At Wooded Glen Avenue in Fairfax County, for example, "hand digging" by a Verizon contractor caused damage to Cox's network, according to a report submitted to the Virginia corporation commission.
Miguel Gonzalez, a spokesman for Washington Gas, said the company works with Verizon to prevent damage to its facilities, but as of August it had sustained 288 incidents since November.
Before digging, construction crews are required to call into a state-administered "Miss Utility" center, a clearinghouse of information that notifies other utility companies of the planned work. Generally, within 48 hours, the companies are required to mark the locations of their pipes or lines in colored paint so work crews don't drill into them.
Still, so many mistakes can happen -- including mismarking lines or overly aggressively digging -- that it is often difficult to assign blame, said Schrad of the Virginia corporation commission.
In a Sept. 29 e-mail obtained by The Washington Post, Verizon manager William Taylor complained to a contractor about shoddy workmanship causing damage to lines owned by Comcast in Howard County. Verizon and Comcast sent damage-prevention officials to monitor the contractor, the Verizon manager said in the e-mail, because "your contractors were destroying Comcast's [lines] at an alarming rate. . . . We will continue to operate business in this manner until your contractors make a conscious effort to reduce damages."
Mitchell said that Verizon subsequently dismissed the subcontractor working on the project mentioned in the e-mail and that Taylor's e-mail is not representative of Verizon's relationships with its six contractors and about 90 subcontractors in Virginia and Maryland.