The needler in the haystack.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Comcast franchise renewal issues

There are hundreds of instances of dangling cable
throughout the community after Superstorm Sandy.
Pictured above is the playground at East Front Street and Westervelt Avenue.
Plainfield City Council's most substantial issue with regard to the renewal of the franchise agreement with Comcast (slated for an August 2014 deadline) is that a series of missed opportunities leave it practically without leverage in the renewal negotiations.

NJ's cable franchise renewal process takes part in three segments: the Ascertainment phase, the Municipal phase and the issuance of a 'certificate of approval' (COA) in the form of a franchise renewal ordinance.

The Ascertainment phase, which should have begun at least two years ago, provides the municipality with the opportunity of factfinding among the subscribers to determine issues that need to be negotiated in the franchise renewal.

While it may be true that former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs failed to renew the terms of members of the Cable TV Advisory Committee, the likelihood is that the members were appointed to serve 'until a successor is duly appointed and sworn in' as is the case with most boards and commissions. If that is the case, the fault for leaving the City in this weak position in the final negotiations rests with the (former) Cable TV Advisory Committee more than with Robinson-Briggs.

Given the intense participation in the Ascertainment phase during the 1999 renewal (I was secretary of the commission), it struck me as odd that neither the Robinson-Briggs nor the Mapp administrations turned to any previous members -- plenty of whom are still around -- to put their experience to use for the City in the current round. More's the pity.

Further, during the 1999 renewal, the City appropriated a small amount for an attorney with experience in cable TV franchises to consult with the Committee. No such accommodation was made this time around.

We are now in the second phase, in which the City Council negotiates with Comcast over outstanding issues.

The hitch is that those negotiations are to be based on facts and findings brought forward in the Report the ascertainment period was expected to generate based on customer surveys and public hearings -- neither of which has occurred. (For an example of an excellent Ascertainment Report, see Franklin Township's from its 2013 renewal process here.)

Notwithstanding, there are some issues the Council may be able to negotiate on in this next phase --

As pointed out by resident Alan Goldstein at last week's Council meeting, there are many instances of cable wiring knocked down during Superstorm Sandy that have yet to be cleaned up. It seems that Comcast has usually just restored the service with fresh cabling and left the damaged cabling untouched or perhaps lightly coiled but still present. The situation is a nuisance and, in some cases, potentially dangerous (as with the playground pictured above).
One of the ongoing issues with Comcast in the 1999 renewal period was getting underground conduits to be used in the downtown locations, and not to string long reaches of cable across the public parking lots to reach the backs of buildings facing Front Street.
One of the conditions of the 1999 franchise renewal was for Comcast to locate a 'head end' for the school district in one of its buildings. At the time, the District installed a studio in the basement of the new media wing at Maxson School. In the intervening years that studio seems to have been abandoned. With the advent of the PAAAS school on West Front Street, the question needs to be looked into once more.
The 1999 renewal provided for grants from Comcast to equip Plainfield's public access station, With reports that much of the original equipment 'disappeared' during the first term of Mayor Robinson-Briggs, the question of whether Comcast will offer such aid again this time around should be on the table.
While the municipality is banned from negotiating rates, one of the top complaints of customers in the 1999 renewal was the Comcast practice of 'bundling' channels in subscription packages. Many subscribers complain that they are paying for channels that they never watch and would like to be able to have their bill based on selecting from a menu of channels. (NPR recently noted that approximately $20  of every month's Comcast fees nationwide goes to pay for ESPN, though many subscribers do not watch the sports channel.
Lastly, there is the question of franchise payments. While the system with the BPU having the final say has guaranteed a steady rate for Comcast of 2% of subscriber fees to the municipality, the entry of Verizon into the field meant that under certain circumstances Comcast must raise its fee to the municipality to 3½%. Do the Council even know if that is the case in Plainfield and under what conditions the fee would go up?

While residents now have many more options to view content traditionally supplied by Comcast (including Verizon FiOS, satellite networks and Internet services), Comcast has not stood still and is positioning itself as a basic supplier of Internet connectivity. That raises the question highlighted by resident Ora Bailey-Hill at last week's Council meeting. Should Comcast be forced to offer lower-speed Internet connectivity at a lower price to those who wish connectivity without the cable TV?

The fundamental question remains, however: Does the Council have any leverage in the Comcast renewal process?

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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