Chappaquiddick calls for cable, questions commitment on contract

The On-Time ferry provides a connection between Edgartown and Chappaquiddick. — File photo by Susan Safford

A small but vocal group of Chappaquiddick residents is unhappy at the pace of efforts to bring Comcast cable television, Internet, and phone service across the swift harbor channel that separates Chappy from the rest of Edgartown.

As negotiations over a new 10-year cable contract near a conclusion, they have stepped up their criticism of Edgartown selectmen and town administrator Pam Dolby, while challenging the town leaders for a commitment to hold out on any agreement that does not provide service to Chappaquddick.

“The selectmen have done nothing to support the extension of services to Chappaquiddick,” Dennis Goldin, a Chappaquiddick resident, said in a phone interview with The Times. “Pam Dolby has done nothing. The proof is in the pudding.”

Selectmen have said repeatedly they are doing everything within their authority to get the cable conglomerate to provide service to Chappaquiddick. But the board has refused to make any commitment about signing the contract, saying that would tie their hands and let Comcast know their negotiating strategy in advance.

“They’ve been difficult to deal with, we’re sticking with it,” chairman Art Smadbeck said. “We’re totally committed. We’ve been after them for years now to bring cable to Chappaquiddick.”

In letters to Comcast and to the editors of Island newspapers, and in appearances at selectmen’s meetings, a few Chappy residents have made it clear they do not accept the assurances of the selectmen.

“I can’t help that,” Mr. Smadbeck said.

New opportunities

The issue intensified last year, when local electric utility NSTAR installed new conduits under the harbor to carry electric transmission lines. NSTAR installed four conduits. One carries the main transmission wires, the other three are empty, slated for backup and future expansion. Ms. Dolby urged negotiations between Comcast and NSTAR, aimed at securing rights for Comcast to use a spare NSTAR conduit to house cable television transmission wires to Chappaquiddick.

She said progress has been slow and frustrating, but is still advancing.

“They are two gigantic companies,” she said with a shrug this week.

Public utilities are usually granted a regulated monopoly on a geographic region in exchange for providing service to every resident. Comcast is not a public utility, and though regulated by state and federal laws, the cable company has no regulatory obligation to provide service to every home.

The extra cost of providing cable to remote areas provides little profit incentive. In addition to Chappaquiddick, many remote areas up-Island do not have any access to Comcast services.

Mr. Goldin, Bob O’Rourke, Chris Trancynger, and Johnathan Cobb appealed directly to the top, in an open letter to Comcast chief executive officer and Island summer resident Brian Roberts.

“As a member of the Martha’s Vineyard community and the CEO of Comcast, we would appeal to you for your involvement and assistance,” the residents said in the letter. “Please do not allow history to repeat itself and leave Chappaquiddick and other areas of the Vineyard on the sidelines again.”

Bargaining dilemma

Other than satellite television providers, Comcast has no real competitors on Martha’s Vineyard.

“One always hopes the cable company looks at the local issues and has a relationship with the towns, the officials, and their customers, and they want to try to address that in a reasonable manner,” said William Solomon, the attorney hired by the six towns to work on the contract. “We don’t think buildout in a community should be judged in too narrow a financial perspective. We understand it can’t be divorced from finances. We think there’s a responsibility to serve communities, and we think they share that view.”

While there is inherent strength in negotiating as a unit, nothing prevents the six Island towns from signing individual contracts with Comcast. In theory at least, other towns could agree to a contract, while Edgartown continues bargaining.

Mr. Goldin sees public pressure and the threat of losing Island business as the best leverage in the negotiations.

“I’d have the selectmen just say no,” Mr. Goldin said. “If they stood firm and said they wanted services for all the people of the Island, Comcast can’t walk away. That would be a political disaster.”

After two extensions, the new deadline for a contract agreement is November 16. Mr. Solomon said he is guardedly optimistic that the Island towns and Comcast can meet that deadline.

Across the divide

The cable services dispute illustrates the long simmering undercurrent of tension between some Chappaquiddick residents and Edgartown government officials.

“The last time I looked, Chappaquiddick paid seventeen percent of the taxes in Edgartown,” said Lionel Spiro, former president of the Chappaquiddick Island Association.

He also acknowledged that many people live on Chappaquiddick because it is somewhat remote and insulated from the rest of Martha’s Vineyard, and they move there with the understanding, and sometimes the appreciation, that Chappaquiddick lacks basic infrastructure that most people take for granted.

“There is very little that we ask for. This is one thing most people would like to have,” Mr. Spiro said. “This is a time when selectmen could call in support from other towns who are also voting on Comcast. Edgartown is in a position to make or break many efforts on the Island. This is a time to get something in return.”

Mr. Goldin also cited taxes. He said Chappaquiddick residents contribute $3 million in taxes and get very few town services.

“I chose to live on Chappy,” Mr. Goldin said. “I guess you could say I’d like to take that $3 million and be a municipality ourself. There are people who come here just for the summer, who never want anything changed. That’s okay, they’re here for one month of the year.”