Chappy leaders urge support for first step in Comcast deal
Photo by Barry Stringfellow
Members of the Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) attending Saturday's July meeting expressed growing support for Comcast's offer of high speed internet service to residents of the small island. But there are high hurdles.
The price for each property owner is high and still uncertain, because it will eventually be tailored to each customer's construction costs. Many possible Comcast customers on Chappy had demurred because they feared that merely announcing their interest automatically incurred a big financial liability. And, before a necessary survey to define the actual, ultimate, individual costs can occur, owners of 270 Chappaquiddick properties — half of the 540 "dwelling units", as defined in the Comcast/Dukes County contract for Chappy — need to signal their interest in signing on. But, judging by the reception the Comcast deal got and the reaction to detailed explanations by a Comcast executive who attended, of how the deal will work, islanders have warmed up to the opportunity.
A standing room only crowd filled the Chappaquiddick Community Center for the annual meeting — the July version, another will take place in August. There was also non-Comcast business on the agenda. CIA President Roger Becker drew enthusiastic applause when he announced the approval of a new parking lot at Ferry Point and the successful funding for a new, island-based fire truck. The crowd moved briskly through a wide range of topics, until Mr. Becker got to the controversial offer from Comcast that could bring cable TV and, most importantly, reliable high speed internet to Chappy for the first time.
While details of the contract had been sent to Chappy homeowners in late March, this was the first time they were able to discuss the deal en masse. It was also the first time they could talk to someone from Comcast in person. Senior manager of government and community relations Mary O'Keeffe attended.
A long time to get to this point
This meeting has been years coming. Negotiations for a new 10-year contract between Comcast and the Island Cable Advisory Board (CAB), a committee representing the six towns on Martha's Vineyard, began in early 2011. Early on, Comcast said it had no interest in serving the remote, sparsely populated Chappaquiddick. Service to Chappy became a major stumbling block to renewing the Island-wide deal. The CAB and Comcast extended the contract several times over the long and increasingly fractious negotiation. In December 2011, Edgartown town administrator Pam Dolby refused to attend any more meetings until Chappy was included in the conversation. In September 2012, Comcast agreed to include Chappy, and finally, in late January of this year, the selectmen from the six towns endorsed a 10-year, Island-wide agreement with Comcast.
"Pam Dolby has been behind us all the way on this," Mr. Becker said. "It was a tough job to get this deal done because Comcast is a monopoly. Never was Edgartown going to say, 'No deal, Comcast pick up your stuff and leave.' "
But the victory came with a steep price tag for Chappy homeowners. As part of the deal, Comcast outlined a plan that would require Chappy customers to help with their estimated $1.58 million capital investment tab. Each customer would have to pay a proposed one-time fee of $2,139 and sign up for two years of basic cable in order to receive internet service — at $24.60 a month; the minimum required investment would total $2,739. Additional construction fees may be added, depending in part on the distance of the "dwelling unit" from the main conduit.
The most time-sensitive condition of the deal requires that at least 270 homes, half of the defined "dwelling units" on Chappy, must sign a commitment letter and have it on file at the Edgartown National Bank by October 1, this year.
Since a "dwelling unit," as defined in the proposal, can also be a guest house or an inhabitable garage, the total number of homeowners was inflated, making the 270 target number harder to reach. And so far, response had been tepid. According to Lionel Spiro, former president of the CIA, at the time of the meeting the Edgartown National Bank had 30 of the needed 270 letters of commitment on file.
As temperatures continued to rise Saturday morning, along with the body heat of more than 100 tightly packed Chappaquiddickers, former CIA president Woody Filley and Dennis Goldin, chairman of the CIA's telecommunications committee, both ardent supporters of the Comcast deal, made their pitch to the assembled.
"We have to have reliable high speed internet," Mr. Filley said with urgency. "Let's really think about what will be five or ten years down the line. A lot of people will be going to the doctor right from their home. Ten years ago, think about it, you had to drive to the Steamship and stand in line to get your ticket, or even more annoying, try to do it on the phone. People say this is about TV, but TV isn't the issue here. We're talking about internet. We're talking about bundled services that might actually save you money. If this conversation was taking place 100 years ago, it would be like discussing if we should have indoor plumbing or outdoor plumbing. This is essential for children, for education, and for business. We'll have to wait at least ten years if we don't get it right this time."
Mr. Goldin added that a fund had been started to help people who need assistance with the first $2,139 cost. "Ten thousand dollars has already been made available, although no money needs be exchanged till next March, when Comcast will require payment, if and when we reach the 270 threshold. Five homeowners have already taken advantage of that funding. Another twenty-five thousand dollars plus is hopefully being arranged and managed through an educational and charitable, not-for-profit source," he said.
Ms. O'Keeffe was late to the meeting, but her presentation cleared up what was apparently a broadly held misconception. Many Chappaquiddickers thought that sending in the commitment letter bound them to an open-ended financial liability. Not the case.
"We have to get two hundred seventy people or more to send in their commitment letter by October 1, 2013. This is only phase one of the process. Then we go out and survey each property that sent us a letter. Comcast will then get back to everyone with what the construction cost, if any, will be. Until you know what the construction cost is, you may or may not want to change your mind, and that's fine. We won't start construction until we get 270 payments, but the first step is to get 270 commitment letters back, to allow us to start surveying individual properties," she said.
Ms. O'Keeffe then outlined the remaining benchmarks of the deal.
"If we get enough commitment letters, we should complete the last survey by late January, 2014. In late March, 2014, Comcast will notify potential customers what additional costs they may occur. By July 21, 2014, all payments must be paid into an escrow account at Edgartown National Bank. If all the above is completed, Comcast will have a functioning cable system in place on Chappaquiddick by February 15, 2016."
A Comcast competitor
Local entrepreneur Bob Fynbo got the chance to pitch his private internet provider company, Chappy WISP, as an alternative to Comcast. Mr. Fynbo touted his company's growth in customers and capacity, positioning himself as a hometown David fighting a corporate Goliath.
"There's a fundamental difference between us and Comcast. We're a roaming service. You can take your computer, iPad, mobile phone and use it at any access point. We're in our fifth year of operation. We've tripled our original speed. In our first year, customers used 3.7 terabytes of data. This year, it'll be over 100 terabytes. I'm not saying we're perfect, we've had our issues. We're a private business, we run it ourselves. We're locals, we take care of our own. You call for service, you're likely going to talk to me," he said, receiving the most enthusiastic applause of the morning.
Summer resident Jack McCauley endorsed Chappy WISP as a viable alternative to Comcast. "I've been a Chappy WISP customer for years, and I'd like to say Bob's been outstanding."
But, like many others in the room, Mr. McCauley said he also saw the Comcast letter of commitment in a new light. "What became clear today is that this first step, the survey, takes the gray out of the situation and puts things in black and white. If what we need as residents is to get 270 people to commit, we want the info from the survey, then I would encourage all of us to sign up. It sounds like there's an assessment that really benefits us all."
After the meeting, it was clear that support for the Comcast deal had grown.
CIA vice president Judy Murphy approached Ms. O'Keeffe about finding the I.D. number that was on her letter from Comcast. "Most of us were against it and we tossed our letters. But I'd like to vote."
A smiling Ms. O'Keeffe provided Ms. Murphy with the information on the spot.
"I must say Comcast was much more solicitous than I expected," said Lionel Spiro. "They really are meeting us halfway. I was in favor of it before but hesitated to encourage people to sign a commitment letter because I thought it was a blank check. Comcast made it clear that it is not a blank check, just a statement indicating they might buy it. It would be foolish for anyone not to sign it. Comcast fought hard not to do it, but they seem to be good sports about it."
Regarding Chappy WISP, while Mr. Fynbo's pitch got the loudest applause of the meeting, afterwards it became apparent he was celebrated more for his industry than for his company's efficiency. Several WISP customers expressed doubt that WISP could compete with Comcast, citing limited bandwidth and ongoing connectivity issues. Mr. Goldin added in a subsequent email, "The definition of high speed internet is greater than four megabits per second (mbps). DSL and Chappy WISP are not at that level. They generally run at one to three mbps at the best. Comcast's service would begin at twenty to fifty mbps for comparable fees. Chappy WISP has provided and will continue to provide a valuable service to some Chappy residents. However the WISP bandwidth is limited, relatively slow, and unable to allow bundling of services."
Peter Wells, owner/operator of the Chappy Ferry and a stalwart member of the Chappy community, handed out a written endorsement of the Comcast deal that resonated with many of the attendees. He concluded, "In the ferry service, it's vital to have redundancy. Sometimes DSL is out, sometimes the WISP is out. Since there are no guarantees that these two services will operate in the future, I'm relieved we have a chance of getting Comcast here. While Comcast is acting shamefully, they are the biggest and fastest provider in town. The agreement we have with them is actually better than I expected. The Chappy community needs to come together to make this happen."
When the Chappy-Comcast portion of the Island-wide deal was first announced over the winter, Mr. Becker was pessimistic about the terms finding acceptance. A straw poll at a potluck dinner garnered only one vote out of 12.
But, "I'm more optimistic than I was," he told The Times as he left the meeting. "But getting to 270 is still going to be very, very hard."