Jersey City has opened a new lane on the Information Superhighway. By passing an ordinance at Wednesday's council meeting that will permit RCN Telecom to use public areas to string up fiber-optic cable wire, the municipal council opened the gates of the city to what is being called the future of telecommunications. In RCN, customers will have a three-pronged service called Open Video Service (OVS), through which they can subscribe to all of their major communications functions. A multi-service provider, RCN brings customers cable television, high-speed Internet connections and phone service and puts them on the same bill. Currently, local cable and phone subscribers generally receive a separate bill each month for cable television, local and long distance phone service. According to an RCN spokesperson, rates for the cable television service will be in the mid-$30 range, with almost 100 basic service channels to choose from. In addition, competitive long distance rates will be available. Final prices have yet to be determined. The presence of a new cable operator will increase competition with current the city's current provider, Comcast cable systems. In addition, because RCN also provides phone and Internet service, telephone systems like Bell Atlantic, Sprint, MCI, and AT&T and Internet providers such as America Online will also be forced to go to bat against RCN in the new open market. According to company literature, RCN was conceived and built to capitalize on the opportunities presented by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. With that act, Congress reduced government regulation of cable systems, allowing more of a free market. "I am quite frankly looking forward to the competition," Councilman-at-large L. Harvey Smith said, echoing the sentiments of the City Council. Wednesday's vote was 7-0-2. In an effort to jump-start the competition, certain providers, such as satellite and direct television, will have an easier time setting up their systems than existing cable operators. The ordinance before the council states that RCN must set up an office within 10 miles of the city, whereas Comcast is required to have an office much closer to its customers. In addition, while other cable operators must service an entire municipality, RCN is not required to service any more of Jersey City than it feels necessary. This has some worried, however, that RCN may cater to the wealthy waterfront developments rather than areas throughout the city. Newport, essentially owned by a private developer, broadcasts its cable from a separate feed out of New York and has no affiliation with the rest of the Comcast family that provides cable throughout the rest of Jersey City. RCN's mission, according to its proposal, is to become the leading provider of voice, video and data services in every residential market it serves. Currently, RCN has set up shop in Boston, New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. in an effort hit the most dense cable television markets in the country. On the other side of the nation, RCN has established a similar Washington-Boston corridor from San Francisco to southern California. In more than 50,000 of its subscribers' homes around the country, RCN provides the bundle package, combining local and long-distance telephone service, video programming and Internet access. As a result, according to the company, RCN is the largest competitive, facilities-based provider of bundled video, voice and data services in the United States. As part of a package intended to sweeten the deal for the city, RCN will provide 2 percent of the revenues from basic service, as well as an additional 3 percent of gross revenues from the OVS Service. According to an RCN spokesperson, that will translate to between $3 and $4 million over 10 years. Also promised by company representatives to the City Council are two lines that can serve as a communications link between municipal buildings and schools if the city so chooses. Welcomes competition Robert Smith, the director of public affairs for Comcast New Jersey, expressed no qualms about the impending competition last week. "Comcast welcomes competition," he said. "Competition is preferred over regulation." Because all television providers must pay for the stations they air, Smith said, it is not likely that there will be a significant difference in price. Because federal law prohibits a station like HBO from selling its services to different cable operators at different prices, cable subscribers should not anticipate a massive price war that ends up making cable virtually free. Smith believes that the company to deliver the best services at the best prices will win the day. "People don't buy cable for the way it is delivered," Smith said. "They buy it for the services we provide. We're going to remain very competitive in the market, take care of our customers and continue to roll out new and improved products and services."