The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors is considering getting into the cable business.
Four supervisors have recommended that instead of renewing a franchise agreement with its cable provider, the county look into purchasing the system itself.
That could lead to a government takeover of a business that provides service to about 22,000 customers and grosses $20 million a year. But the recommendation may simply be a hardball approach to negotiating with Adelphia Communications Corp.
"This is a confrontational mode that the county is taking because the taxpayers stand to lose," said Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling).
According to county code, the government has the option to purchase the cable system if it is to be sold or transferred. Adelphia wants to transfer the Loudoun system to Comcast Corp., which, along with Time Warner Cable, paid $17.6 billion for the bankrupt company's assets in April.
The cable companies, however, say the county may no longer have that right, since a federal bankruptcy court is directing the transfer.
Delgaudio is chairman of the board's finance and government services committee, which voted 4 to 0 on Oct. 18 to further explore the option to buy the system, despite the cable companies' protests. The committee's other members are Supervisors Bruce E. Tulloch (R-Potomac), Lori L. Waters (R-Broad Run) and D.M. "Mick" Staton Jr. (R-Sugarland Run).
On Tuesday, the full Board of Supervisors will consider the motion.
Jim Barnes, the county's cable franchise administrator, said pursuing a purchase of the system could strengthen Loudoun's negotiating stance with Adelphia, whose franchise agreement expires Nov. 14 (although an extension is under consideration). He said he hopes a new agreement will include provisions for creating a closed network among county buildings and improving customer service.
Delgaudio said that residents have complained about spotty cable service, including untimely repairs or installations, and that customers could benefit from competition at any level. He also said the next franchise agreement should include a more aggressive plan to reach out to the tens of thousands of residents who have no access to cable and the high-speed Internet access that can go with it.
"We are looking for substantial changes, and we have to be willing to fight for [them]," Delgaudio said.
Kristy Hall, regional counsel and director of government affairs for Adelphia, declined to comment on the status of pending negotiations but said, "We continue to listen to what the county believes is important, and we want to address those cable-related needs and interests appropriately."
She also said the company is trying to improve customer service, in part to respond to the threat of competition. The county is negotiating a cable franchise agreement with Verizon Communications Inc.
Preliminary calculations by the county show that the system, which provides cable to the unincorporated parts of Loudoun, could cost $73 million.
Legal advisers have warned, however, that the final cost could be much higher because trying to enforce a buyout would probably lead to litigation, said Barnes, Loudoun's cable franchise administrator.
The board will also vote Tuesday on whether to extend the current franchise agreement with Adelphia for three more months, which would give the county and the cable companies until mid-February to hash out a new agreement.
"We still have quite a ways to go before we have something that the Board of Supervisors will approve," Barnes said.
The Town of Leesburg, which has a separate cable franchise agreement with Adelphia, is also considering an Adelphia request for a transfer to Comcast. The town's cable commission voted two weeks ago to recommend that the Town Council accept the transfer application when it votes Nov. 8, said Tami Watkins, management specialist and the cable commission's staff liaison.
If the transfer agreements are approved, the cable systems will not actually change hands until perhaps March, Hall said.