Edgartown turns off cable TV talks, other towns stay tuned

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

After three contract extensions and what it views as a frustrating lack of progress, Edgartown officials have withdrawn from negotiations with Comcast for a new 10-year contract to provide cable television to Island towns.

The other five Vineyard towns continue active negotiations with Comcast, and it is unclear what effect Edgartown’s withdrawal will have on the process.

Edgartown selectmen said they have seen little progress on one of their priorities throughout the negotiating process, namely a commitment from Comcast to provide cable television service to Chappaquiddick.

“If they are not going to pay attention, if talking to them doesn’t do any good, maybe not talking to them will do some good,” Art Smadbeck, chairman of the selectmen, told The Times.

Comcast offered few specifics when asked to comment on the development. “We look forward to resuming negotiations with the towns in the coming weeks,” Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman said in a statement emailed to The Times.

Town administrator Pam Dolby told selectmen that she is frustrated at the lack of communication from Comcast. Ms. Dolby is the town’s representative to the cable advisory board. She recommended that selectmen withdraw from the negotiations, a development she termed drastic.

“They [Comcast] need to take it seriously, and they’re not,” Ms. Dolby told The Times. She said she has not taken part in cable advisory board meetings since selectmen opted out of the negotiations.

“There’s really nothing to do until they begin to address the issue,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “We keep hoping they will, but we haven’t seen anything concrete.”

Fuzzy picture

Jennifer Rand, West Tisbury town administrator and chairman of the Island’s cable advisory board, said it remains to be seen whether Edgartown’s withdrawal from negotiations will affect the final agreement.

“We are certainly supporting Edgartown as best we can, but how that will play out moving forward, I don’t know,” Ms. Rand said.

The latest extension of the contract is to January 20. The contract expired June 30, 2011. Ms. Rand said that multiple extensions are not unusual in this sort of negotiation. “I think it’s going fairly quickly,” she said. “I think we’re actually making great progress.”

Attorney William Solomon represents the six Island towns in negotiations with Comcast. According to Mr. Solomon, once a cable company invests in infrastructure, state and federal laws offer the company some protection against a municipality rejecting the company and turning to another cable provider.

If Island towns, collectively or individually, did issue a final denial to Comcast, it would trigger a hearing process involving long, costly and sometimes contentious legal work. He said that scenario is rare, and one no one wants to get into. He said Island towns are a long way away from that kind of legal dispute.

Happy Chappy

Some Chappaquiddick residents were sharply critical of selectmen as negotiations progressed. Peter Getsinger, co-president of the Chappaquiddick Island Association, said residents were heartened by the selectmen’s decision last month to withdraw from negotiations.

“It’s been a fairly long and emotional process,” Mr. Getsinger said. “I think the town has heard that need and is responding to it. I really don’t understand why Comcast has been dragging their feet on this. If this doesn’t get them moving, it’s hard for me to imagine what the next step is. I certainly would hope this would bring all the parties together. It’s time for that to happen.”

Edgartown officials and Chappaquiddick residents say that conduits that were laid under the swift currents of the harbor channel last year made cable service to Chappaquiddick possible.

Last summer, local utility NSTAR completed work on new conduits to carry electricity. NSTAR installed four conduits. One carries the main transmission wires, the other three are empty, slated for backup and future expansion.

For several months, Comcast has negotiated with NSTAR for rights to lease the NSTAR conduits, but there is no agreement yet. “We continue to work with NSTAR,” Mr. Goodman said.

While the six Island towns have negotiated as a group, each town signs its own individual contract with Comcast.

Chappaquiddick resident Dennis Goldin is urging other towns to boycott the contract talks. “We’re hoping that all the Island towns will remove themselves from the negotiations, until Chappaquiddick and all of the underserved areas are served,” he said.

Comcast is not a public utility and has no regulatory obligation to offer cable service to every home. In addition to Chappaquiddick, several remote areas up-Island do not have access to Comcast services.

Tuning in

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 public access TV provider MVTV uses the funds to operate three public access channels (Channels 13, 14, and 15) on the Comcast system for public, education, and government affairs. Cable service licensees are required to provide public access channels under federal communications law.

Comcast also provides capital funds and equipment to support MVTV and to provide other services, such as remote broadcast locations in the six towns. Massachusetts law requires that the funds may be used only for public access TV.

Under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 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.