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Medford residents closer to having choice of Verizon FiOS

By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / January 26, 2012
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Two years after it halted expansion of a fiber-optic Internet and television network, Verizon has applied to the city for a license to bring the high-speed service to most Medford neighborhoods.

A public hearing is scheduled for 7 tonight in City Hall, where Verizon officials will present the scope of the service, popularly known as FiOS, that will be available to 71 percent of Medford homes and businesses.

An agreement between the city and Verizon also requires the two sides to continue negotiating to extend the service to an area of West Medford not yet wired, said Mayor Michael J. McGlynn.

“That’s the one part of this [agreement] that was critical for me,’’ said McGlynn, who as mayor has sole authority under state law to negotiate cable television licenses. “It states that we will both continue to negotiate, to get the other 29 percent of the community wired.’’

In 2009, after years of requests from city officials, Verizon started to negotiate with the city for a cable TV license. Only Comcast currently offers cable television in Medford. Some homes and businesses also subscribe to satellite services, such as DirecTV and the Dish Network, McGlynn said.

The Verizon hearing comes as archrival Comcast expands its outreach in the city. Medford is one of six communities nationwide selected to pilot a new initiative called “Project Open Voice’’ to support local cable television broadcasts.

Marc Goodman, a Comcast spokesman in Boston, said there is no connection between Medford’s selection for the pilot program and Verizon’s bid to get a cable TV license.

“This has been planned for months,’’ he said. “A variety of communities were chosen, based on size. Some are rural, some are urban, some are close to cities.’’

Goodman declined to disclose the number of Comcast customers in Medford.

“There are options for people, but we felt that it was important for consumers to have a choice for cable and Internet,’’ McGlynn said. “It took a lot of lobbying on our part.’’

In 2010, Verizon replaced copper wires with fiber optics in most city neighborhoods, except for an area near the Winchester town line. Work stopped after Verizon made a corporate decision to halt expansion of FiOS nationally, and dropped negotiations with communities, including Medford, McGlynn said.

McGlynn and city councilors still felt that cable competition was essential in the city of 56,000 people. He made a direct appeal to Robert Mudge, president of Consumer and Mass Business Markets at Verizon, to finish the job the company had already started in Medford.

“He listened to my concerns,’’ McGlynn said. “That’s when negotiations to at least offer FiOS to 71 percent of the community started.’’

Verizon, which offers FiOS in 111 Bay State communities, won’t be talking to other communities anytime soon, according to a company spokesman.

“We have finished franchising,’’ Phil Santoro, a Verizon spokesman, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “Medford is the last one. We already started the process in Medford when we wrapped up the FiOS franchising efforts.’’

The city and Verizon have reached a 10-year agreement to offer FiOS-TV in areas already wired. The telecom giant has agreed to pay 5 percent of franchise fees collected from Medford customers annually to the city. The percentage rate, which is set by state law, is also part of the city’s license agreement with Comcast, McGlynn said.

Comcast last year paid the city $519,288 in cable TV franchise fees. Since July, the city has received $287,888 in Comcast fees, said Christine Nihan, the assistant city auditor.

Three percent of the payments goes to the city’s general fund, while 1 percent each is contributed to local government and educational programs broadcast on Medford’s public access channels.

McGlynn does not expect the Verizon agreement to increase cable TV fees collected by the city. “When you consider that Comcast could lose customers, we won’t gain revenue when people switch to Verizon. We’ll be made whole,’’ he said.

Goodman said the company’s services in Medford and elsewhere are “unmatched by any competitor.’’

Still, McGlynn believes consumer choice is good for all of Medford. “We’ve sought this competition [from Verizon] for years,’’ he said. “I have made the argument to Verizon that it is easier to wire the area of the city that they haven’t done than the areas they have already completed. I have a strong feeling they’d pick up customers there. It’s an area where a lot of people work at home. . . . It’s the neighborhood where I’m getting the most calls for [more] service.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.

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