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GTE to Experiment With Technology : Fiber-Optic Cable TV System Will Give Cerritos Residents Look Into the Future

March 08, 1987|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

CERRITOS — It is only half an inch thick, yet it can transmit the entire 30-volume set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the wink of an eye.

Infinitely faster and more dependable than conventional wire lines, the tiny strands of pure glass known as fiber-optic cable may propel this city into the forefront of the cable television industry.

By early next year, Cerritos will be the first city in the nation with a cable franchise that extensively uses fiber-optic technology, officials said. While cable programming will be available for the first time here, only about a third of the city's 16,000 homes and 2,000 businesses in the northeast corner of Cerritos will receive the service through the glass conduits. The rest of the city will be linked to the $7.5-million underground cable network with wire cables.

There will be no difference in the type of services offered by the two systems. Besides movie and sports channels, residents throughout the city will eventually receive "interactive" features such as home banking and shopping, stock market data and electronic mail, city officials said.

The fiber cable system here, however, will be a "laboratory" for General Telephone, which was awarded the cable franchise by the City Council on Wednesday. Engineers know that voice is transmitted best over single-strand copper wire, and TV pictures are transmitted best over metal coaxial (braided) cable. In Cerritos the phone company wants to find out if fiber optics will surpass the performance of both by carrying telephone and television transmissions on a single glass cable.

"We intend to put in place a system that is unsurpassed in this country . . . ," said Tom Gillett, director of network services planning for General Telephone Service Corp. The utility's California subsidiary will finance and oversee installation of the cable system, while Apollo Cablevision will operate it. Apollo is a small subsidiary of T. L. Robak, a San Luis Obispo-based construction company that is one of the largest cable builders on the West Coast.

Public access to the system, however, will be limited because neither Apollo nor the city plans to provide a studio or video equipment to produce local programs. City officials say a studio may be added later if there is sufficient demand.

The agreement ends years of frustration for residents, who have complained about the lack of cable service in a city that prides itself at being first in almost everything.

Gillett said GTE spent more than a year searching the nation for a city "that has the right image" to test fiber optics in a cable system. In the end, he said, Cerritos fit the bill. Its location in a large urban market was a plus. Also, the city did not have a cable system and consultants predicted a better-than-average number of subscribers once a system was in place.

And the city has a track record of gambling on the creative rather than the conventional. Cerritos had the nation's first solar-powered City Hall, and it was among the first to cluster auto dealerships in one area and call it a mall.

One of the last cities in the Southeast area without cable television, Cerritos had failed miserably in attracting bidders for its cable project. The drawback was the city's insistence that the cable lines, like all utilities here, be installed underground, a far more costly proposition than stringing lines from utility poles.

FCC Approval Needed

The City Council voted 5 to 0 Wednesday to give the cable franchise to GTE, which already delivers phone service to about 90% of the city's 55,000 residents. Construction of the system could begin by summer, assuming that the Federal Communications Commission approves the phone company's role in the venture. By law, Gillett said, the phone company must seek FCC approval to branch out into cable. But he added that such a review is a formality, and he predicted that federal officials will approve the project within six months.

Phone companies are restricted from getting involved in any phase of content on cable beyond transmitting programs and information. The FCC has said that as long as the phone company's role is restricted to operation and maintenance of the system--not the development of programming--it will approve such ventures.

All programming in Cerritos will be handled by Apollo, which will lease the system from GTE.

Council members said the cable issue has been a constant source of friction with residents in recent years.

Now that a cable agreement has been reached, a visibly pleased Mayor Don Knabe told the audience at a recent council meeting: "Maybe my phone will stop ringing now at night. . . . We've wanted this as much as you. But we didn't want to sacrifice our high standards just to say we have cable. This is a top-flight project."

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