- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

Nationals fans in Maryland who are frustrated over their inability to watch the team on cable television will soon have another option.

Verizon Communications this week received approval to roll out its new fiber-optic cable service in Howard County, and is expected to offer subscribers the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), which broadcasts most Washington Nationals games.

The service, known as Verizon FiOS, will compete directly with Comcast, the region’s largest cable provider, which has refused to carry MASN. Verizon service could be available in the county as soon as Opening Day.

“This is going to give fans in Howard County another opportunity to see the games,” said Bob Whitelaw, MASN’s general manager. “It’s all about choice. All of these things are very positive.”

MASN was created early last year as part of an agreement to compensate Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos for the Montreal Expos’ relocation to the region. The Orioles own about 90 percent of the network, with the Nationals owning the rest. MASN is expected to begin broadcasting Orioles games in 2007.

Verizon already offers cable service in Herndon, and recently won approval to roll out in Fairfax. The company is also in talks to roll out service in Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Baltimore counties in Maryland. There are no talks yet, however, about rolling out service in the District.

Verizon, which signed an agreement to carry MASN in November, said it does not yet know what it will charge Howard County customers, or precisely which channels will be offered. But a spokeswoman said services and pricing should be comparable to what the company offers in other cities.

In other areas, Verizon charges $39.95 a month for about 200 channels, all of them broadcast digitally over fiberoptic lines. Comcast, by comparison, charges $64.95 for its digital cable service in Howard County.

“We think its a tremendous value,” said Verizon’s Sandra Cohen-Hagar. “We’re offering consumers another choice. It’s an alternative to [traditional] cable.”

Comcast has about 1.7 million cable subscribers, including about 70,000 in Howard County.

It has refused to carry MASN on the grounds that the network violates the terms of Comcast’s agreement to broadcast Orioles games on its own regional sports network, Comcast SportsNet. Comcast sued the Orioles and Major League Baseball last year, but their case was denied. Since then, MASN has submitted several offers to be carried by Comcast, Whitelaw said, but none have been accepted.

Comcast said it was not worried about the competition, because it was continually working to improve customer service and add new products, including landline and wireless phone services.

“Each of our product lines has been strengthened,” said Comcast spokesman Jim Gordon. “It isn’t so much about price. It’s about customer service. It’s about features and it’s about fitting in with people’s lifestyles.”

Analysts said they were doubtful that Comcast customers would immediately switch to Verizon’s service simply to get Nationals games. But they said competition is always good.

“This may force Comcast’s hand,” said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecommunications analyst in Atlanta. “When you introduce competition into an area, the cable company responds — they lower their price, they improve their service. When you have competition, it’s better for the consumer.”

MASN already is carried by satellite provider DirecTV and on RCN Cable, which is available in parts of Maryland the District. Select Nationals games also are broadcast on WDCA-TV (Ch. 20) and WTTG-TV (Ch. 5), as well as local channels in Baltimore.

MASN also wants to be carried on Cox Cable, which serves Fairfax County. A Cox spokesman said the company would like to carry the network, but wants to avoid passing additional costs on to customers.

“There’s still dialogue taking place,” said Cox spokesman Alex Horwitz. “An agreement has to make fiscal sense.”

The network also has had discussions with Time Warner and other smaller cable providers, in an effort to build a sports network available from the Mid-Atlantic region down to North Carolina.

MASN offers no programming aside from baseball games. It intends to offer full 24/7 programming by 2007, though it might launch it earlier if carriers request it.

All of MASN’s on-air talent worked under one-year contracts in 2005. Much-maligned color commentator Ron Darling is not expected to return, though no personnel changes have been officially announced.

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