Md. Pole-Fee Talkers Ordered to Try Again

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Maryland cable operators have been ordered back to the negotiating table to develop a pole-lease plan that's less onerous than the utility's demand that both cable operators and Verizon Communications pay rent for the same attachment.

The dispute began in 1996 when the electric utility, a division of Constellation Energy Group, sought to change the pole-attachment business arrangement. Historically, Maryland's cable operators paid pole rents to Verizon's local predecessor, Bell Atlantic Maryland, which audited the attachments and collected the funds on behalf of BGE.

But in 1997, the utility-which serves Baltimore and 10 surrounding counties-demanded direct payments in addition to the full rent collected by the telephone company. The duplication could cost operators $1 million a year in added rents, according to Wayne O'Dell, president of the Cable Telecommunications Association of Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

Cable executives spent several meetings trying to negotiate an attachment deal, but BGE remained unsatisfied. That year, it filed eight lawsuits to enforce its new attachment scheme. Cable countered by filing for the suits to be set aside, citing jurisdiction by the Federal Communications Commission.

For the duration, operators continued to pay the telco's previous pole-attachment rate.

Last week, the FCC Cable Services Bureau finally ordered the parties back to the table.

"We'll have to set up administration going forward. Our agreements are with Bell Atlantic," said O'Dell. The operators will argue against retroactive payments to BGE.

BGE officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Elsewhere last week, the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission reaffirmed an order mandating that Verizon make its wholesale and retail divisions in that state "functionally structurally separate."

Regulators have said that separation is the only way to ensure true competition in the state. The telco may also face sanctions for a public-relations campaign against the order that commission members labled "misinformation."

The order instructs Verizon on a code of conduct but competitors argue that the code, which has been in place for months, has been the subject of repeated violations by the incumbent. Regulators warn they will escalate their order to complete structural separation unless Verizon adheres to the code.