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Comcast protests Qwest cable plan

Provider says rival has an unfair advantage; meeting is tonight

Comcast officials urged the Salt Lake City Council this week to take a little more time before allowing Qwest to get a foothold in the Salt Lake cable market.

Qwest, the dominant phone provider in the city, wants to break in as a cable provider and has asked the city to allow it to forgo build-out rules requiring it to cover the entire city before it can provide cable service to any one region.

But Ray Child at Comcast said that "cherry-picking" allowance gives the cable newcomer an unfair advantage that Comcast did not have when building up its cable customer base.

"A company might go to certain neighborhoods where they could get the quickest return on their investment," said Child, director of public relations for Comcast. "If you want a franchise in Salt Lake City, you commit to serve that entire area."

The Salt Lake City Council is set to decide whether to grant a franchise agreement to Qwest tonight. Comcast representatives have also said that the City Council did not give enough public notice about the agreement. Comcast first heard of the proposal to let Qwest in on the cable market last week.

Comcast was subject to a citywide build-out requirement when it first offered cable to Salt Lake, Child said. Recently, the group finished a $350 million upgrade that was done on a citywide basis instead of only in the most profitable areas, he said.

Jerry Fenn, Qwest president for Utah, said he believes the opposition from Comcast is merely a "red-herring" to avoid new competition. When Comcast wanted to break into the telephone market, Fenn said it was not held to a citywide buildout standard because it was the second provider after Qwest.

"We ought to be able to determine where we serve within the city based on market demographics. That's fair," Fenn said. "If we're able to provide television services to the residents of the city, we think the resident will have real choice and that will result in lower prices. It's simply an attempt by Comcast to try to hold on to their monopoly position."

Having to provide service to the entire city just to get into the cable market would be an impossibly "high barrier to entry," Fenn said.

Steve Proper, director of government affairs for Comcast, said his company is in favor of competition and lower prices but just wants a level playing field for both companies.

"We face competition every single day. We think that's good; it makes us stronger and it keeps us on our toes. It only serves everybody when it's beneficial and fair," he said.