AT&T laying groundwork for expanded cable service

"This time next year, North Whidbey residents will have 162 TV channels to choose from. And they'll pay for the privilege.That's according to an AT&T spokesman, who says the expanded service will include channels dedicated to everything from non-stop golf coverage to history or nothing but science fiction movies — plus several pay-per-view channels and dozens of digital music channels.Judging by current rates, it will cost customers at least $35 a month, plus governmental fees, to get all those channels.Oak Harbor City Council members aren't happy about the price. At the Tuesday night meeting, Councilman John LaFond said he got a call from AT&T, formerly TCI, offering him digital service at a price he felt was unreasonable.Under the 5-year franchise agreement between the city and AT&T, LaFond questioned whether the cable company could lawfully charge a fee that was higher than what customers pay in other areas.Councilmember Sheilah Crider suggested that the city should look at other cable providers once the five-year agreement is over.Yet in defense of the company, City Supervisor E.T. Silvers said AT&T has a right under federal law to increase cable rates if the company upgrades the system.Silvers said he would contact AT&T and report back to the council about the state of the franchise agreement.According to AT&T Cable Service General Manager Dan Crocker, the company plans to rebuild the cable system, adding fiber optic lines, in Oak Harbor and Coupeville this summer. The digital lines, he said, allow the transmission of infinitely more information than conventional cable lines.For TV fans, that means many more channels.For Internet users, that will eventually mean cable modems that are a hundred times faster than conventional modems.In addition, Crocker said the cost of adding fiber optic lines will not be passed on to customers who don't subscribe to the digital service. Yet without digital service, Oak Harbor and Coupeville customers will be limited to a maximum 28 channels even after the improvements are made.To get the benefits of the digital technology, Crocker said customers must subscribe to digital cable service and have a digital set-up receiver. In fact, the company started offering Oak Harbor customers digital service about a year ago. The digital information is sent on the existing cable lines and changed into an analog signal at the digital receiver on top of the televisions.But without the fiber optics, he said the digital service is currently limited to only 19 additional specialty channels on top of the regular line-up. Once the fiber optic lines are in place, the full menu of 162 channels will be available. Cable internet service will also be on line.AT&T expects the project to be complete in January 2001.Current AT&T cable ratesOak Harborbasic service: $7.50 a monthnumber of channels with basic: 13expanded basic: $15.49 a monthnumber of channels with expanded basic: 19digital package with one premium channel: $48.99 a monthnumber of channels with digital: 38Coupevillebasic service: $11.20 a monthnumber of channels with basic: 17expanded basic: $16.60 a monthnumber of channels with expanded basic: 28Note: Prices do not include franchise fees and taxes. Cable Internet service is not yet available."

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