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PITTS SAYS CABLE MERGER HINGES ON SYSTEM UPGRADES

Buffalo lawmakers won't approve a merger of the city's cable television operators until the companies launch a planned $24 million upgrade of their system, Common Council President James W. Pitts warned today.

Pitts served notice on TCI of New York and Adelphia Communications that they still will be required to abide by the terms of TCI's 1995 franchise contract with the city -- despite a merger that will have Adelphia running the system.

Among other things, TCI's 10-year contract required it to build a fiber-optic cable system by the end of this year, estimated to cost up to $24 million.

However, Pitts signaled the Council's willingness to relax the timetable and other troublesome contract requirements if work begins on the fiber-optic system and other franchise requirements, including a "showcase school" project.

"We want them to begin all those things before we approve this merger," Pitts said.

The Council has 90 days to review the merger application. In preparation, Thomas M. Tarapacki, city director of telecommunications, has given the companies a list of 12 major questions the Council wants answered.

Pitts said: "We have the option to refuse (the merger) . . . If we refuse it, they have to come back with a better deal."

In addition to the fiber-optic network, TCI also has balked at outfitting a "showcase school" -- providing video monitors and computers in every classroom at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Preforming Arts, 333 Clinton St.

Adelphia Communications Corp., is slated to take over Buffalo's cable television franchise later this year, allowing TCI to fade into a background position.

Michael Rigas, Adelphia's executive vice president of operations, said his company wants to fulfill TCI's pledge to rewire the city with a fiber-optic network, but said the work cannot be finished by the end of the year.

Fiber-optics, now installed in suburban franchises being operated by Adelphia, would allow Buffalo cable customers to receive advanced, interactive telecommunications along with expanded television programming.

Pitts said: "It is clear that TCI has not adhered to a number of provisions in the contract," adding that TCI has taken no action to complete the required fiber-optic system.

TCI officials argued that new technology involving "compressed" digital television signals would allow the company to offer more channels using the same wiring network.

The company also claims it has since learned that the Performing Arts' school building will need major electrical system improvements before it can accept the new television equipment.

However, city officials point out that digital compression does not allow for interactive communications such as Internet connections. And Pitts complained that TCI never mentioned the school wiring problems when it agreed to do the "showcase school" project.

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