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St. Pete Beach gets cable TV upgrades

(ran Beach, South, West editions)

By mid-June, St. Pete Beach residents should be able to get the same number of the cable television channels as their friends and relatives in neighboring communities.

Time Warner Communications has spent four months upgrading its system and installing fiber-optic cables throughout the city.

"St. Pete Beach residents will have the new and improved cable boxes faster than anybody else," said Bob Barlow, Time Warner's vice president and general manager for Pinellas County.

"They'll have all the channels that everybody else has and they'll have all the fiber optics that everybody else has."

Construction on the cable system, which will give customers better reception and access to digital technology beginning this summer, should be complete in the next three weeks, Barlow said. After the installation is complete, Time Warner plans to deliver new cable boxes and check the reception on the upgraded equipment.

Time Warner decided to start the system upgrades after it began negotiating with the city last fall to renew its franchise agreement.

"It (the upgrade) had been delayed because we really wanted to have the renewal in place, and I think we are far enough along with that now," Barlow said.

City attorneys recently returned the agreement to Time Warner with some technical revisions.

"A proposal has been sent to them and it's in their laps right now to review," St. Pete Beach City Manager Carl Schwing said.

Meanwhile, he said the city is reserving the right to hire its own technical consultant for the negotiations.

"That's fine because it's not our nickel, it's theirs," Barlow said. He said Time Warner's attorneys were reviewing the revised agreement.

Time Warner received the initial franchise for St. Pete Beach in the early 1970s and renewed the agreement for the first time in 1983. That agreement is scheduled to expire in June 1999.

Barlow said he is confident that Time Warner and the city will come to an agreement on the franchise renewal.

"We've always had a good relationship with St. Pete Beach, and I see absolutely no problem," he said.

Time Warner has made "a substantial investment" to upgrade the equipment in St. Pete Beach, Barlow said. The cost of the improvements, he said, "is seven figures."

The agreement would be non-exclusive, allowing other companies to operate cable systems in St. Pete Beach as well.

When the system is upgraded, Barlow said St. Pete Beach customers will have access to at least 82 existing channels and eventually as many as 400.

Residents, who have been receiving 64 channels, complained last fall that they could not get programs their friends and relatives were receiving in neighboring communities.

That was because of the equipment, Barlow said. When the system was rebuilt in 1986, he said, technology allowed for only 60 channels. Four more were added later.

Twelve years ago, "they were way ahead of everybody else," Barlow said of St. Pete Beach customers. "Now we've got the same exact system everywhere."

Initially, Barlow said it could take up to 18 months to install the new, upgraded system at the beach. But he said the company decided to go ahead with the construction this year because it had a crew already working in nearby neighborhoods. That crew is scheduled to leave the beaches and begin a project in Polk County this summer, Barlow said.