For years, channel surfers have longed for a choice of cable companies.
Now hopes are rising that Western New York will be able to switch cables, not just channels. But there's no telling how long it will have to wait for the privilege.
Verizon Corp., better known for its telephone wires, won its first television franchise in the state last week. The state Public Service Commission approved the franchise for Long Island's Massapequa Park.
Cable TV is part of Verizon's ambitious plan to string fiber-optic lines to millions of homes in 15 states, providing a fat digital pipeline for video images and also for high-speed Internet.
The New York rollout looks like good news for Buffalo-area viewers who feel they pay too much for pay TV. Incumbent cable provider Adelphia recently announced a 6 percent rate increase for most of its 300,000 subscribers in Erie and Niagara counties, effective Feb. 1
"There's a significant population that wants to stay with cable," said Thomas Tarapacki, Buffalo's director of telecommunications, utilities and franchises. While satellite offers a price break, many viewers are wary of the wireless technology and its required dish antenna. Nationally, the cable industry pipes channels into two-thirds of homes that watch TV.
Tarapacki said he hopes that Verizon will at least begin talks next year to plug its fiber into homes in the region, as its rollout gains speed. The Long Island franchise should set a template for other communities around the state, Verizon officials said.
But while the phone company's push into TV is real, the debut is making a bigger splash in the press than in the real world, one analyst said.
"It's not a thunderstorm. It's more of a sprinkle," said Bruce Leichtman, a cable industry analyst in Durham, N.H.
By entering a few suburban communities, Verizon has signed up a few thousand TV customers since announcing its "fiber to the premises" initiative in May of 2004. That's about the number of telephone customers that some cable companies are signing up every day for their newfangled Internet telephone service, Leichtman said.
"The real competition (in TV) is satellite, with 26.6 million subscribers in America," he said.
It's hard to say when the Buffalo Niagara region will see the fiber-optic light. Verizon is mainly targeting selected parts of suburban areas, leaving much of the state's population in the dark about when fiber will reach them. The company lists 120 New York communities targeted for fiber-to-the-home, but Buffalo and its suburbs are absent.
In the meantime, Verizon continues adding to its miles of fiber that provide the high-volume links between switching offices on its network.
Still, other developments spark hopes that at least some area homes will be connected before too long. Verizon held informal talks with Hamburg town officials in the fall about construction that the initiative would require, and company representatives have said the Buffalo Niagara region is among likely fiber-to-the-home territories at some point.
Largely used for telephone trunk lines and city-to-city Internet pipes, fiber-optic cable carries many times the information in a standard copper phone line, or even coaxial cable used for TV. Depending on the signaling technology used, a single strand can transmit the equivalent of 50,000 simultaneous phone conversations, Verizon says.
Boosters say that the enormous capacity will give fiber an edge for delivering bit-intensive applications like high-definition TV and ultra high-speed Internet.
But Verizon's current offerings over its fat pipes seem rooted in familiar services, not futuristic visions.
In Keller, Texas, the first area where Verizon's "FiOS" fiber-optic service debuted -- Massapequa Park won't be in use until early next year -- the TV offer sounds familiar to anyone who has received a flyer from a cable company. A mainstream package of 180 channels, including music channels, costs $39.95 a month, plus $3.95 for a set-top box. A high-definition box and premium channels are extra.
"Texas is a different market than New York . . . (but) I'm assuming it will be comparable," Verizon spokeswoman Lark-Marie Anton said. The company will price TV for each locality to compete with existing providers, she said.
With two choices for national satellite TV as well as the incumbent cable provider, Western New York viewers may yawn over a fourth provider of pay television, one satellite marketer said.
"They're entering a very competitive business," said Karl Schmelz, marketing director for Dish Network installer Intertech Digital Entertainment. Armed with its wireless delivery technology, satellite will continue to be the low-cost provider for TV, he predicted.
Leichtman said he suspects the fiber initiative is aimed primarily at selling lucrative high-speed Internet accounts, particularly to businesses. Verizon's FiOS material lists business-class Internet services to be available in eight states for $60 to $390 a month, with download speeds up to 30 megabits per second.
"Video is not the important part of this," he said. "It's high speed Internet."