Towns look for upgrades in Comcast license renewal

The Cable Advisory Board (CAB), representing all six Island towns, is preparing to negotiate a 10-year license renewal with Comcast Corp, the Philadelphia-based cable and Internet giant. The present contract expires on June 30, 2011.

Comcast serves about 10,000 Island homes under a current 10-year contract reportedly worth $85 million in cable revenue to Comcast, according to one consultant.

The CAB and Martha’s Vineyard Community Television (MVTV), the Island’s nonprofit public, government and education station provider, have launched an intensive effort to review Comcast’s compliance with terms of the current contract and to gather input from residents and community groups about current service and future needs.

The CAB is responsible for negotiating cable contracts; although each town signs the contract individually, all six contain the same terms and language.

The current contract requires Comcast to pay a fee of 5 percent of its Island cable revenue to fund MVTV operations. “We’ve received just over $400,000 this year as our five percent share of Comcast’s Island cable revenues,” MVTV chairman Denys Wortman said last week.

The new contract would be the Island’s third cable contract, the second with Comcast. The first contract was between individual towns and the now-defunct Adelphia cable system. The Adelphia contract was renewed in 2001 after nearly eight months of extensions and delays. That contract, in part, provided the funding to establish a PEG station (public, education and government access). Comcast entered the picture in 2006 after Adelphia went bankrupt.

Cable contracts

Contracts between cable providers and communities are essentially land-use licenses by which the town agrees, in exchange for cash and kind, to license the provider to use town roads and property to install cable lines and equipment in order to provide service to its customers.

The license is not exclusive — other cable providers can also be licensed by a community — but in small markets like the Vineyard there is rarely competition for subscribers.

Federal law requires that cable companies provide public access television channels available to communities for their own programming. Currently, MVTV provides three channels for public, educational, and local government programming.

Under the current contract, Comcast has also agreed to provide other services, including installation of equipment for remote broadcasts, such as at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury, Jen Rand, town administrator and CAB chairman, said last week.

The negotiating process is subject to defined federal regulations The towns issue a request for proposal (RFP) which outlines their plans and “wish lists” for additional resources and service upgrades. The cable company then can offer a counter-proposal in their RFP response, after which the negotiating process begins.The ability of communities to regulate what services cable companies must provide, and at what cost, is limited. The CAB has no authority over cable rates or programming or over internet and telephone services, which are not part of the cable TV contract.

However, towns are free to negotiate service upgrades and to seek capital funding for equipment and facilities. They may also use past performance, present needs, and future planning to create negotiating leverage to obtain additional equipment and resources from the cable provider.

Getting ready

As in the past, the towns retained an attorney, William Solomon of Stoneham to negotiate the contract. The timetable to begin license renewal negotiations is on track, according to Mr. Solomon.

“We are now in a process during which we ascertain and document facts about current service and needs for the future. That’s why the public hearings are so important.

“We expect the ascertainment process to end in early January. We will issue an RFP in late January and we expect to be talking with Comcast by February,” Mr. Solomon said in a phone interview last week from his office in Stoneham.

Mr. Solomon declined to predict specific details of the the Island’s RFP, but said “I’d anticipate the need on the Island might be for more significant capital dollars.

“Cable is an integral part of local community on the Island, more so than in other places,” he said.

MVTV — which has a direct interest in the renewal process because it receives funding as part of the existing contract — has hired a consultant, completed six focus groups last month around the Island and has more than 180 surveys from Island residents related to cable service and residents’ needs.

MVTV and its consultant, Sue Buske of The Buske Group, Sacramento, Cal., are not involved in the actual negotiations but MVTV executive director Julienne Turner said last week MVTV would provide the survey results to the towns, the CAB, and other interested parties. “We did this survey for our own planning but we will share it with anyone interested,” she said.

The Buske Group will submit a report and recommendations on findings from the focus groups and from completed surveys in late December, she said.

Ms. Turner is also reviewing Comcast compliance with its current contractual obligations, such as the status of 28 locations around the Island which were to be set up by Comcast as remote broadcast sites.

Ms. Buske advised an aggressive negotiating approach in her presentation to six focus groups in four Island towns recently.

“The current Comcast license is worth $85 million. Multiply that by two and one half times and that’s what the next contract may be worth for cable only. Over the past few years, 21 states have taken over, negotiating statewide contracts. Comcast has made three attempts to do this in the Massachusetts legislature. Some statewide contracts don’t require cable companies to contribute to local access TV. This could be your last bite at the apple,” she said.

Marc Goodman, a Comcast public information officer in Boston, told the Times, “I can’t speak to specifics during a period of negotiation but Comcast is committed to cable access, and we go above and beyond in community involvement efforts, including Vineyard community initiatives like partnering with the YMCA building project. I can assure your readers that there will be no interruption of service regardless of the length of the negotiation process. We want to be part of the Vineyard community for 10 years and beyond.”

The towns are savvy now, MVTV’s Mr. Wortman said. “People are more aware. When we first negotiated we had no track record, no experience with public access. Ten years ago Linda Marinelli (former Oak Bluffs selectman), videotaped the meetings, then walked the tape over to Adelphia’s office,” Mr. Wortman said of the early days of public access TV.

“There are two key negotiating points. Keep the 5 percent fee and ask for capital funds for new equipment,” he said. “We want to expand the MVTV building. We need more room,” he said of the building, located adjacent to the regional high school, that houses MVTV.

“We need a bigger studio, an editing room. We are falling behind technology, in cameras and equipment. We don’t have a bathroom. We’ve been putting money aside as an expansion fund or to build a bathroom. That’s not Comcast’s fault. The school septic system was maxed out. Now they’re hooked up to the sewer system so we can go forward.” he said. “One way or the other, I’m going to put a bathroom in that building.”

CAB chairman Jennifer Rand is focused on public input and is pushing the planning process. In past cable contract renewals, the CAB was criticized for acting too slowly during the strategy planning process. “We meet regularly and also when the attorney wants a meeting,” she said.

“The public hearings are critical. That input gives Comcast knowledge that our concerns are coming from residents. They are doing their own telephone research, so it’s good to have our own research,” she said.

Ms. Rand said the overall direction of CAB goals are: To “address the needs of the under-served Island population, better access, and signal strength, live feed systems that work everywhere they are supposed to and getting the equipment necessary to use them.”