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Frontier prepares to take on Time Warner 

Local cable subscribers can access a multitude of channels at the push of a button, and they have on-demand access to many popular shows and movies.

But many customers still complain about the service: they have picture quality problems, their feed cuts out too often, they're forced to pay for channels they don't want, and they can't get channels or programming they do want (streaming television services have started filling that gap). And with the complaints often comes a plea for competition.

Many subscribers say they want different choices, better service, and better prices than the existing provider, Time Warner Cable, gives them. The competition would at least get Time Warner to step up its game, they say.

And competition may be on its way — gradually — via Frontier Communications, which plans to roll out its new Vantage TV service to the Rochester region. The channel lineups, packages, and prices aren't set yet.

"We're going to have to be competitive in terms of the product and pricing, no doubt about it," says Bill Carpenter, a regional general manager for Frontier.

Also not settled: which communities will have Vantage TV and when. Frontier has 45 communities in its local service area, and it needs franchise agreements with each one it wants to provide cable service in. The company reached out to Rochester, Canandaigua, Greece, Perinton, Pittsford, Brighton, and Victor, and is getting ready to approach others, Carpenter says.

The Gates Town Board approved a franchise agreement last month, making it the first community in Frontier's local service area to sign on. Under the agreement, the Town of Gates gives Frontier access to public rights-of-way, and Frontier gives the town 5 percent of the revenue it gets from Gates subscribers, says Town Supervisor Mark Assini. Those are the same terms as Gates' deal with Time Warner, he says.

"If we say no, then there is no competition, and then there's no chance for them to build out and do anything else and nobody gets any choice," Assini says. "You've got to start somewhere."

Time Warner will continue to provide service in Gates.

Initially, Frontier's cable TV service will be available to only half of its Gates customers. The company's network — not just in Gates, but across the region — needs upgrades to accommodate the new video service.

The State Public Service Commission needs to approve the Gates agreement, too. Frontier will provide the commission with technical details about the network's design and its plans for building out its network in Gates. (Frontier will have to do the same in every community that approves a franchise agreement.)

Most markets have traditionally had a single cable provider, largely because wiring a community and providing programming is an expensive undertaking. An upstart company entering a market with a big provider is taking a substantial risk.

So why is Frontier getting into the cable business? The short and obvious answer: its bottom line.

Frontier has picked up new service territories in California, Texas, Florida, and other states. Those territories were previously owned by either Verizon or AT&T, and both companies operated their own pay television services — Fios and U-Verse, respectively — in those markets.

Frontier picked up enough video subscribers that it now has leverage to acquire the packages needed to offer a new, competitive pay TV service, Frontier's Carpenter says.

But Frontier is entering a saturated national market, says Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst of Leichtman Research Group, a broadband, media, and entertainment research firm. The 13 largest cable and satellite providers have lost around 1.5 million subscribers since pay TV's peak in 2012, he says. That's out of approximately 100 million subscribers total, however, so while the numbers are declining, it isn't at a "ridiculously rapid rate," he says.

Four out of five US households subscribe to pay TV, Leichtman says. And Frontier will see a competitive benefit from offering video service, he says

Cable companies have been able to keep and add customers because of broadband Internet services, which they can package with video and voice services, he says. Until now, Frontier has only offered voice and slower-speed broadband services.

"They were missing a piece of what people want," Leichtman says.

And Frontier says that aspects of the new Vantage TV service will set it apart from Time Warner. Those include a DVR service that can record up to four shows at once; the ability to search live television by program name, actor, and other criteria; and a dedicated channel for Netflix streaming.

The Vantage service won't be available across Frontier's entire local market right away, Carpenter says. In an investor presentation earlier this year, Frontier execs said they expect the service to be available to half of the company's customers nationally within three to four years.

In Gates, the service will be open initially to households that already have the necessary wiring in place, Carpenter says.

That's an issue for officials from Charter Communications, which swallowed up Time Warner Cable in a merger this year. They want Frontier held to the same coverage requirements as Time Warner.

But that's a state issue. New York laws give a provider five years to make service available to all households in a franchise area, as long as those areas meet certain density requirements. Frontier could apply for a waiver based on economic hardship, however.

Supervisor Assini says Gates officials will treat Frontier and Time Warner equally; they'll have the same access to town rights of way and will pay the same rate.

Charter representatives say the company is preparing to introduce its post-merger Spectrum offerings early next year. It'll have broadband Internet starting at 60 mbps with no data caps or modem fees; voice service; and an array of HD channels. The prices will be competitive, says Stephanie Salanger, Charter's regional spokesperson.

"We welcome the competition and we're confident in our ability to compete for customers, but want to compete on a level playing field," Salanger said in an e-mail.

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