Comcast regulators struggle

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

It’s probably not a good sign that Clark County’s chief cable regulator is just as confused about Comcast’s rates as the rest of us.

“It is difficult trying to find the rates on the website — I can’t find them,” said Jim Demmon, director of the City/County Cable Office. “We do get a rate sheet here each year, but for new customers you see one rate, for existing it’s another, by the time you add in different factors it’s very frustrating. And we can’t require them to make it available to the public.”

Local regulators also can’t control how much Comcast charges, what stations it offers in its lineup (with a handful of exceptions), or how it notifies local subscribers of changes to rates and channels.

If recent history is any guide, the cable giant would like even less oversight in the future. Comcast, which reported profits of $3.7 billion in 2010, and which spent $12.9 million on federal lobbying that same year, went all the way to the Federal Communications Commission to challenge the City/County Cable Office’s oversight of local rates. Local regulators’ annual budget: about $620,000. Guess who won?

For more than two decades, the cable industry has been winning similar victories at the federal level. So it’s especially important for Clark County’s roughly 81,000 Comcast TV subscribers to pay attention to negotiations now under way.

The City/County Cable Office, which oversees Comcast regulation in Vancouver and unincorporated Clark County, hopes to wrap up a 10-year franchise agreement with Comcast later this year.

“In many jurisdictions, cable companies have been successful at reducing penalties and the scope of enforcement in local communities,” said Julie Omelchuck, cable program manager with the Portland-based Mount Hood Cable Regulatory Commission, one of the few regulatory bodies in the region that’s actually fined Comcast in recent years for breaking the rules. It charged the cable company $43,899 for failing to send customers notices in advance of making channel changes.

This is not just intrusive government placing limits on a for-profit company. Comcast couldn’t deliver its hundreds of high-definition channels through thousands of Clark County residents’ TVs if the government didn’t give it something in return: free access to public lands and the public right away, where miles upon miles of cables are buried in underground trenches. In a normal capitalist situation, owners have the right to demand something in return for use of their property. But Clark County residents have been robbed of much power by federal restrictions.

Demmon, the director of the City/County Cable Office, said local franchise negotiations with Comcast are just getting under way. Demmon’s priorities include a focus on Washington-specific programming, since area broadcast media focus so heavily on Oregon news.

Let’s hope they stay tough as Comcast presents its own wish list and the negotiations unfold in the months ahead.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.