Talks with Comcast ‘progressing’

Negotiations over franchise pact slow, but no major issues

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Negotiations on a new franchise agreement between Comcast and the City/County Cable Commission have slowed, but the commission’s chief negotiator says discussions remain on track with no major disagreements between the two sides.

“There are no major sticking points,” said Jim Demmon, cable television manager. “We’re progressing, but it’s just taking a little longer.” He expects to reach a proposed agreement in time for public hearings early next year. Because the current franchise doesn’t expire until the end of 2012, Demmon says he’s not worried about the delay.

Comcast has a franchise to provide cable television service in Vancouver and much of unincorporated Clark County. The city and the county negotiate through the cable commission to obtain public benefits, primarily public access channels, as a condition of granting the franchise. The franchise is non-exclusive, meaning that another competitor could enter the market, although no other firms have shown an interest in competing against the cable giant. The company has more than 83,000 customers in Clark County.

Local governments do not have the legal authority to regulate Comcast’s rates for cable television services, and Comcast recently announced a rate increase for television and Internet services effective Nov. 1. The company says the hikes will increase costs to its average customer by 3.2 percent.

An early timeline called for an agreement to reach the telecommunications commission for approval in early August, followed by city council and county commission hearings in October. But Demmon now expects to present a proposed agreement to the telecommunications commission in January, followed by city and county action in February.

While vacations and other scheduling conflicts have much to do with slowing progress, Demmon said some details are of high importance to the cable company. Comcast wants to secure clear language on when it has the authority to lay cable in public streets, for instance. And the company is always looking to streamline language so that its provisions are standard in many of the jurisdictions where it provides services. It’s also cautious about accepting a local condition that could set a precedent in another jurisdiction, he said.

The commission’s focus is on protecting its existing public, educational, and governmental service channels, Demmon said. Public surveys conducted at the start of negotiations showed strong public support for those channels, he noted. The channels required by the franchise agreement include public channel FVTV (channel 11); TV ETC educational channels (channels 27, 28 and 29); and government channels CVTV 21 and 23 and TVW 22.

Comcast spokeswoman Theressa Davis said the company has good relationships with Vancouver and Clark County. “We continue to work through the negotiation process and are looking forward to having an agreement, and definitely think we are on the right track,” she said.

Comcast pays a 5 percent franchise fee, which generated $1.8 million for the city and $1.6 million for Clark County in 2010. The money goes into those governments’ general funds, but each contribute $250,000 annually toward operations of public, education and governmental services stations.