At Large: Comcast gets the news, the sequel

It wasn’t just Pam Dolby who was astonished by the gulf between what Comcast says publicly about its Martha’s Vineyard contract negotiations and what it really says at the negotiating table.

Ms. Dolby, as I reported in this space last week, wrote to Steve Hackley, a senior vice president of Comcast’s Greater Boston Region, about an OpEd column, entitled “Comcast’s commitment to Martha’s Vineyard is stronger than ever,” that he wrote and The Times published on March 15. I included a copy of a letter written March 6 by Ms. Dolby to Mary O’Keefe, senior manager of government/community relations for Comcast, based in Mashpee. Ms. Dolby wrote that the Comcast exec, in his OpEd, had wandered from the factually straight and narrow.

Ms. Dolby is Edgartown’s administrator. Edgartown’s selectmen have declared themselves unwilling to make a new 10-year deal with Comcast for cable services, unless Chappaquiddick gets those services too.

Ms. Dolby is not the only Islander able to detect twaddle when it appears on the printed page, attempting a kind of glad handing end run around reality. Jennifer Rand, West Tisbury’s town administrator and the chairman of the Island’s cable advisory committee, which is negotiating with Comcast, wrote to Mr. Hackley to say — I’m paraphrasing here — About that OpEd of yours, “Whoa.”

Mr. Hackley had written that “no one disputes” that spreading cable’s bounty to Chappaquiddickers would cost $2 million. Not so fast, Ms. Rand says: “The cable committee does, in fact, dispute this figure. In Comcast’s October 8, 2009 letter to Edgartown, Comcast wrote ‘it was determined conservatively that the project would cost $1.95 million to $2 million, with almost half of that amount being the underwater crossing.’ NStar has installed the conduit for the crossing so clearly the cost is no longer $2 million to build out Chappaquiddick.

“The town of Edgartown,” Ms. Rand continues, “has requested from Comcast any information that will back up this investment figure. To date, they have not received any response. ”

Mr. Hackley wrote that there are only about 500 homes on the little island, and four-fifths of them are occupied only seasonally.

But, hold on, Ms. Rand writes, Chappaquiddickers have already indicated that they may be willing to eschew the seasonal rate, meaning that Comcast would earn more than would be the case if 80 percent of Chappy houses that subscribed to cable did so at the reduced seasonal rate.

Ms. Rand also delivers a calculation in which she explains that an average Comcast cable customer pays Comcast $1,695 a year, of which about $705 dollars is operating cash flow for Comcast. Not net profit exactly, but a suggestion of what the margin may be.

“Further,” Ms. Rand writes, “such amounts have been growing at five percent to 10 percent per year for some time.” Those cash flows could be used to help pay for the cabling of Chappy.

Then, the cruelest cut of all, “While it is unclear how current Comcast customers on Martha’s Vineyard compare to Comcast’s overall averages (Comcast to date has been unwilling to disclose the necessary local financial and statistical information), we note that, with growth, an average customer could generate a net operating cash flow of about $9,000 to $11,000 for Comcast over the next 10 years and more in the years beyond. Five hundred twenty two customers at 80 percent penetration could generate $3.7 million to $4.6 million in the next 10 years.”

Mr. Hackley didn’t say much in his OpEd, and what he did say hedged the reality that Islanders generally understand very well. Now, Ms. Rand’s letter buttresses that general understanding with some eye-widening details. Chappy may be a thorn in everyone’s side much of the time, but this issue between the Vineyard and Comcast is merely a grain of sand on the Lucy Vincent Beach that is the media leviathan. Our neighbor Brian Roberts, chief of Comcast, knows that his colossus can afford it. Vineyarders have suggested that they are prepared to help. Comcast isn’t doing its part.

“The town of Edgartown has requested from Comcast any information that will back up [its estimates of the cost of cabling Chappy]. To date, they have not received any response,” Ms. Rand explained in her patient, trenchant way. “This information should include: (i) Comcast’s costs for using the NStar conduit; and (ii) a build out sheet and plan showing the distances, densities and costs for building out Chappaquiddick. Without this information, Comcast can certainly not expect that anyone other than Comcast will contribute toward building Comcast’s infrastructure, much less even be able to discuss the issue.”

Alas, it may be dawning on Mr. Hackley that whatever higher-up said, Hey Steve, write something that quiets those folks down, but don’t spill the beans, and be sure they know we love them, was having him on.