Prince George's County bills would force cable companies to provide faster Internet access

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Local,Science and Technology,Maryland,Matt Connolly,Prince Georges County

A pair of bills in the Prince George's County Council would seek to extend broadband Internet access to all residents -- and punish cable companies that won't comply.

Many county residents, especially those in rural areas, are only able to purchase dial-up Internet. Dial-up began to be phased out in most areas when broadband connections, which run much faster and don't tie up the phone line, reached widespread use about 2001.

"It's a real hindrance to the daily lives of a lot of county residents," said Councilman Mel Franklin, D-Upper Marlboro, who introduced the bill. "Right now, companies are not required to offer it."

In 2010, a report by the Federal Communications Commission found that only 6 percent of Americans still used dial-up connections. That same year, however, a Pew survey found that 52 percent of respondents said that government promotion of broadband access was "not too important" or that it "should not be done."

Franklin said that improving access would allow residents to more easily apply for jobs and find health information, as well as help children do schoolwork. The bill would bring Prince George's up to line with Montgomery County, he said, which requires that any area with 15 or more houses per linear mile have broadband access.

Two companies, Verizon and Comcast, currently offer Internet service in Prince George's. The county is in the midst of negotiating a new contract with Comcast.

"We want to serve as many customers as is geographically and economically feasible," said Comcast spokeswoman Alisha Martin. "However, there are some low-density areas where it is not economic for Comcast or other providers to build out."

A second bill would give the county's Cable Television Commission the ability to recommend fines and other penalties for companies that don't adhere to county rules.

"Right now, they are our main oversight entity, but their authority doesn't have the teeth it needs," Franklin said. "There have been some ongoing issues over the past few years -- quality of service, quality of customer service. Many residents felt like there was no real recourse for their concerns."

Penalties would need to be approved by the commission during a public meeting before being sent to the County Council, which would have the final say over whether or not the punishments are imposed.

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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