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Mass. Utility Set to Forge Into Cable

Delegates in the town of Braintree, Mass., overwhelmingly approved the expansion of its municipal electric utility into the cable-television business.

Now all the Braintree Electric Light Department must do is construct its system and attract business before RCN Corp., which is in several surrounding communities, decides to overbuild it.

At their May 10 meeting, 95 percent of the 194 town delegates present voted to approve two articles: expansion into cable and authorization of a $3.5 million bond issue to fund the utility's video plans.

Walter McGrath, general manager of the utility, said the cable venture isn't too much of a stretch for the operation.

"We already have the plant on the poles," he said, adding that BELD already delivers Internet services under the "BELD.net" brand. To install a network, the utility has to complete some work underground and connect a few multiple-dwelling units, then buy the headend and customer-premises equipment.

The cable operation will piggyback on the hybrid fiber-coaxial plant that is already installed.

The utility must still gain the approval of the town's cable-advisory committee, but McGrath anticipated their authorization within 60 days. If the committee consents, BELD will go head-to-head with AT & T Broadband, which is in the midst of acquiring the Braintree system from Cablevision Systems Corp.

Due to the transition, the utility faced little in the way of opposition to the recent vote, McGrath said.

BELD serves 14,000 electric customers in Braintree, which is located 18 miles from Boston. McGrath anticipates connecting his first cable customers by Dec. 1. Initially, the utility will transmit service to 7,000 homes, but it expects to complete its build-out within 12 months of license approval.

McGrath said he hasn't determined subscriber costs, as they are contingent on the acquisition of programming services. But he hopes to offer a basic package with more channels than the incumbent at a price that undercuts AT & T Broadband by $5 per month. The venture should break even with 3,000 subscribers, he added.

But the possibility of further competition is looming in the form of RCN. That company has wired neighboring Quincy and Weymouth.

"I don't think they will want to compete. We are well on our way, and they'd need to come in here and build a third infrastructure," McGrath said.