Comcast renewal talks move slowly

Panel represents city, county on cable TV franchise issues

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

The Telecommunications Commission for Vancouver and Clark County continues its sluggish negotiations with Comcast over renewal of the company's cable television franchise, with no clear ending date yet in sight.

The commission aims to present an update to the Vancouver City Council in mid-August, said Jim Demmon, the commission's cable TV manager. The current contract, which gives Comcast non-exclusive rights to provide cable service in Clark County and Vancouver, expires at the end of this year. Last year, the commission had set an ambitious goal of completing franchise negotiations by the end of 2011.

The commission's priority in negotiations is to maintain the current franchise fee of 5 percent of gross revenues that is now paid by Comcast to local governments. That fee generated $1.8 million for the city and $1.6 million for Clark County in 2011. The money goes to those governments' general funds, but each jurisdiction contributes to a fund used to finance public, educational and government service programming, known as PEG channels.

Other priorities listed in a staff report to the Telecommunications Commission include:

• Maintaining an existing $1 per month residential subscriber fee for the PEG channels, with the ability to raise the fee after May 2014, based on "demonstrated need."

• Maintaining the current six PEG channels, and making those channels available even at Comcast's lowest-cost service levels;

• Allowing PEG fees to be used for maintenance and repair of equipment purchased with PEG funds;

• Retaining or expanding the level of Washington state programming;

• Maintaining current customer service standards;

• Retaining Institutional Network Services, known as I-Net.

The proposed 10-year agreement would also include a provision to establish high-definition channels PEG programming beginning next June. Comcast would be required to expand cable capacity into lower-density residential areas, and the company would have the option of closing its local service center if it provided for free pickup and drop-off of equipment.

Comcast is nearing the end of an existing 15 year franchise agreement. The company reported 82,474 subscribers in its Clark County-Vancouver service area in March.

By federal law, the commission has no authority to regulate cable television rates.