Months later, it’s still Comcast’s move

Local agency waits for company’s response on cable TV franchise deal

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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The City/County Telecommunications Commission continues its long wait for a proposal from Comcast on a new cable television franchise agreement.

The commission, which oversees Comcast’s cable franchise with Vancouver and Clark County, has been waiting months for Comcast’s response to a proposed franchise agreement, said Jim Demmon, the commission’s cable television manager. Comcast is operating under a 15-year nonexclusive franchise agreement that expires at the end of this year.

Demmon doesn’t foresee any contentious issues during the remaining negotiations, and believes the delay could simply be due to Comcast’s cautious approach in adopting franchise agreements. Company executives want to avoid accepting provisions in one jurisdiction that might set a precedent in its dealings with other cities and counties, he said.

“I don’t think we’re requesting anything unreasonable,” Demmon said last week. “The main issue is that we’re just waiting for a proposal from Comcast corporate.” He thanked Comcast subscribers who participated in last year’s survey about Comcast cable services, saying that the survey results helped guide the commission’s negotiations.

At one point, Demmon said, Comcast had proposed an expedited time line that would have wrapped up negotiations by last fall. That goal slipped to February, and now might not be completed until late summer, he said.

The commission is focusing on maintaining its existing public, educational, and governmental service channels, Demmon said. The channels required by the franchise agreement include public channel FVTV (channel 11); TV ETC educational channels (27, 28 and 29); and governmental channels CVTV 21 and 23 and TVW 22.

The commission also wants Comcast to provide high-definition capacity and on-demand replays for public access programming, Demmon said. Because Comcast agreed to provide those features in Portland as part of its new franchise agreement there, Demmon isn’t expecting opposition.

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 to those governments’ general funds, but each contribute some $250,000 annually for public, educational and governmental services programming.

Annual review

This month, the Telecommunications Commission held a public hearing as part of its annual review of Comcast’s cable performance. No one testified at that hearing, but the commission has received seven email comments about Comcast, Demmon said. Common areas of complaint are the costs of cable television service and the lack of an “a la carte” offering so customers can tailor their cable service to their personal interests. The commission has no legal authority to impose regulations affecting either of those complaints, he said.

Demmon noted that complaints to his office about Comcast cable have dropped by 50 percent from a year ago. “Comcast is in compliance with all provisions of franchise,” he said. “Overall, they seem to be providing good service to the community.”

The commission is accepting written testimony through April 6 as part of its annual review. Comments are accepted by mail to the City/County Cable Television Office, P.O. Box 1995, Vancouver WA 98668, or via email at tracie.looney@cityofvancouver.us. The commission expects to approve its review in May or June.