Since District Extra reported in May on growing competition for cable television service in the city, the battle between two major providers has become sharper.

Comcast, long the monopoly provider of cable service in the District and much of the region, has faced upstart Starpower Communications since 1998. Starpower, a joint venture of Pepco and RCN Corp., still trails Comcast in subscriber numbers but has continued growing in the past seven months.

According to the companies, Starpower has about 30,000 cable customers in the District, up from 24,000 in May, while Comcast is nearing 100,000 subscribers, up from 88,000 in May.

In October, under a new agreement between city regulators and Comcast, the cable giant is spending tens of millions of dollars upgrading its network.

Comcast officials said the upgrades are about 60 percent complete and will allow more channels with higher picture quality, along with high-speed Internet and other new services. That could put the quality of Comcast's offerings more on a par with those of Starpower, heightening the rivalry.

"We're not doing this because of the competition," said Comcast spokesman David Nevins, "but we do believe the upgrades will add customers and help retain customers and cause customers to buy additional services."

Starpower, which reaches 80 percent of the city, is no longer aggressively expanding its offerings in the District, said general manager Richard Wadman. Most of its limited expansion is in Montgomery County, and the company is focusing on selling service to more households that already have access to the network.

Comcast increased cable rates by 6 percent across the region in November. Wadman said rates in the District have remained lower than in other jurisdictions.

"Where there's competition, if you look at the areas we are, the rates the consumer pays are less," he said.

-- Neil Irwin