Comcast turns off Chappy residents with offer of cable service

The Chappy ferry provides the main link between the town of Edgartown and its easternmost community. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Comcast has offered to provide cable service to Chappaquiddick, but only if residents agree to pick up part of the tab for building the infrastructure needed to run wire to Martha’s Vineyard’s easternmost community.

Several Chappaquiddick residents at the forefront of the battle for cable service this week called the proposal dead on arrival. They contend that Comcast made the offer knowing it would be rejected.

Edgartown selectman Art Smadbeck took a more positive outlook. “It seems like we’re really on the right track,” he told The Times in a telephone conversation Tuesday. “It’s not a final draft of anything. It appears that we’re going in the right direction. Now we have to flesh it out.”

Edgartown selectmen have insisted that the cable giant provide service to the small island. That demand has proven to be a stumbling block to the renewal of the company’s Island-wide cable franchise contract.

The six Island towns and Comcast have wrangled for nearly two years over the terms of a new 10-year agreement that authorizes the company to provide Island-wide service.

Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) president Roger Becker, in a letter to selectmen published today in The Times (Page A12), strongly criticized the new proposal.

“It is unclear why the cable advisory board or the selectmen would entertain Comcast’s proposal in any serious way,” Mr. Becker wrote. “Comcast has suggested that on Chappaquiddick we should kick in $3,800 each to build a system that Comcast will profit from for years to come. Would any resident of Martha’s Vineyard sign on to this deal? As Comcast apparently hopes, there is little chance 200 of the 500 property owners on Chappy will buy into such a plan, and so Comcast is essentially just saying no to Chappaquiddick.”

The offer

In what it calls its final proposal, Comcast said it would build the infrastructure to distribute its cable television and Internet service to Chappaquiddick at a cost of $1.58 million. The company wants Chappaquiddick residents to pay $824,000 of that cost. The cost would be divided up among the existing residents.

In its proposal, Comcast based the project cost on providing service to 540 homes. If the owners of 540 homes buy cable service, the capital cost for each home would be $1,526. If only 40 percent, or 216 homeowners decide to connect, the cost to each would be $3,815.

In addition to paying a share of the initial capital costs, residents would be required to pay for their own connections if their house is more than 250 feet from the main cable. Monthly cable fees for basic digital television service, $57, would be additional.

Mr. Becker said that on much of Chappy, housing density is within guidelines outlined in the agreement that covers the rest of Martha’s Vineyard, and that Chappaquiddick residents should not have to pay high fees to extend the service to their homes.

Mr. Becker asked that town taxpayers finance the cable infrastructure, if Comcast will not.

“Is not Chappaquiddick part of Edgartown?” Mr. Becker wrote. “Edgartown, happy to collect taxes from Chappaquiddick property owners, should include at a minimum, Chappy’s town roads in the Comcast license. Its capitalization should be financed by the profit makers at Comcast or if not, by the residents of Edgartown who are benefitting from Chappy’s tax base.”

Mr. Becker said Chappaquiddick residents pay $2 million annually to Edgartown in property taxes.

Peter Getsinger, past president of the CIA, is active in the effort to get cable to Chappaquiddick. He also criticised the Comcast offer.

“Unless the town thinks this is the best we’re going to get, I think the only way this is going to fly is if the town agrees to front some of the money,” Mr. Getsinger told The Times in a phone conversation. “What Comcast has offered is something they know is dead on arrival.”

Cable contract

Edgartown, with the support of other Island towns, has insisted that Comcast provide service to Chappaquiddick as part the new agreement. That position has been the main obstacle to an agreement as negotiations dragged into a second year.

Jennifer Rand, the West Tisbury town administrator, who is chairman of the Island’s cable advisory committee, said the Comcast proposal seems viable.

“It will hopefully move it forward,” Ms. Rand said. “There are some things we need to sort out, but you don’t look at it and say ‘no way.’ You read it and say ‘this might be workable.’ We are moving forward.”

She said the next step is to return to negotiations to iron out the few remaining differences in the proposals.

“The cable advisory board has a little more work to do,” Ms. Rand said. “We’ll go back and work with Comcast a little bit more and then come up with what is the final proposal.”

Edgartown town administrator Pam Dolby called the Comcast proposal a fair agreement, if the company will make some modifications.

In a letter dated September 12, emailed to Chappy community leaders along with the Comcast proposal, Ms. Dolby raised questions about the total project cost, including the cost Comcast must pay to use NSTAR conduits to carry cable to Chappaquiddick.

“I would like to see some type of proof that this project will cost $1.58 million,” Ms. Dolby wrote. “To date there has been no breakdown and no details of the NSTAR agreement.”

The deal

The Island’s cable advisory board, charged with negotiating a new 10-year contract for cable service, issued a request for proposals in February of 2011. As expected, Comcast was the only company that responded.

Under terms of the current license agreement, Comcast pays the town five percent of the cable television revenues it receives annually from an estimated 10,000 Island subscribers. The annual fees have been about $400,000, based on Comcast’s annual Island cable revenues of $8 million, in recent years. Island officials and Comcast agreed to extend the current agreement four times, as the negotiations stalled. At one point, Edgartown pulled out of the contract negotiations, charging that Comcast was no longer communicating with town officials, nor taking Edgartown’s concerns seriously.

Under Federal Communications Commission rules, communities may negotiate only for cable television service, not for telephone or Internet services often provided by cable companies. Towns may not set rates that consumers pay, nor do they have any say in determining or changing programming, including packages offered by the cable provider.