The two firms competing for the Loudoun County cable television franchise have challenged an assessment by the county's cable consultant that both companies are offering similar systems.
The draft report released recently by CTIC Associates, the consulting firm hired by the county to analyze the two cable proposals, said that both Storer Cable Communications and Cable Communications Corporation (CCC) proposed technically acceptable systems but that, dollar for dollar, both companies were offering the same services.
That assessment is particularly damaging to Storer Cable Communications, which is based in Florida, because many see the edge in any close contest for the franchise, which is expected to be worth at least $16 million in 15 years, going to locally based CCC.
The county cable adviser's assessment comes at a critical time, since the County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing Monday on the cable bids, and possibly make an award by the end of the month.
Both Charles Ottinger, a Leesburg attorney who is one of several local shareholders recruited by Storer to represent them in the county, and Harold Miller, a Reston attorney and CCC shareholder, challenged the assessment last week.
"There are some similarities, but Storer is proposing much more," said Ottinger. Among the differences he said were overlooked were Storer's guarantee to provide service to the towns west of Leesburg, offer 50 percent more channels than CCC and back its commitment with the full weight of the company's assets. "We feel it is a much stronger proposal," he said.
Said CCC's Miller: "We feel we have at least as good an application as Storer, if not a superior one. Our system is tailored for Loudoun County and we will do a good job because we are locally based."
Miller said CCC offered more flexibility in fees, and said that Storer could not guarantee service west of Leesburg because those towns will award their own franchises.
Storer Cable Communications, one of the largest cable companies in the country, won the Leesburg franchise two years ago. The firm's proposal for the Loudoun franchise is to extend service from its Leesburg base east to Sterling and west along Route 7. Storer promises to offer 46 channels for $7.50 a month, except in areas where there are fewer than 60 homes per square mile. There the fee will be $8.95 a month. Storer will also offer six premium pay services for $8.95 each.
CCC will base its operations in the more heavily populated eastern end of Loudoun County and later build a second base west of Leesburg, if it finds it is financially feasible to extend service to the towns of Round Hill, Purcellville and Hamilton. CCC has proposed a two-tiered fee system, with 26 channels for $6.95 a month and 10 more channels for an additional $2.95.
The CCC system would serve all areas continguous to Sterling that have at least 35 homes per square mile, and would also offer six premium pay services for $8.95 each.
The local versus outsider issue is a real one. CCC officials, for instance, believe their reputations as local businessmen will outweigh their lack of experience in managing cable systems. On the county board, supervisor Carl Henrickson (D-Broad Run) says that the local connection could be critical, too.
"My own sentiment is that, given the past record of the Board of Supervisors, they will give a lot of weight to the fact that CCC is locally owned," he said.
To overcome that handicap, Storer is banking on its track record as a multimillion-dollar firm in order to win the votes of the Loudoun board.
Storer has also enlisted the aid of eight local investors, each of whom put up $400 for an interest in the company, to help Storer win the franchise.
But it appears unlikely that those shareholders will be involved in the franchise for long, according to the consultant's report. The report noted that Storer has promised to buy shares of the eight in four years for as much as 100 times their original investment--if they still want to sell.
"You know what that will mean? That will mean that, if you have a problem with your cable service, you'll have to call Miami," said CCC's Miller.
But Ottinger points out that CCC is not based in Loudoun County either. Of 12 original investors, only two live in the county. Most of the others are members of a Washington, D.C., law firm. "There are no truly local firms" in the competition, Ottinger maintained.
Board member Henrickson said, however, that he wants to be sure that the firm that wins is a company with enough financial staying power to make good on its promises.
"Clearly it is important that the company be able to finance the system they have proposed," said Henrickson. But the pressure will be great to make a decision, he said, since "most of the interest in the county is running along the lines of, 'Let's get going and get this thing in the ground.' "