Policy

Comcast Posts Gains in Wash.

1/09/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

Comcast Corp. has negotiated a contract extension for its King County, Wash., franchise that reclaims some valuable analog real estate and provides clarity on data “peering” requirements contained in the pact.

The agreement covers about 800,000 homes currently served in the unincorporated territory that surrounds Seattle. Comcast’s franchise would have expired next month; it now lapses in February 2010.

County commissioners approved the extension by a 9-3 vote in the face of opposition from some community activists, who said the government gave up too much.

PEG CHANNELS GO

Hot-button issues also included the surrender of public, educational and government channels in return for a one-time payment of $1.2 million.

The franchise contained language compelling the local operator to allow data users — including commercial, educational and government customers — to enter into agreements that would allow those entities to move data packets locally over the cable operator’s backbone.

This was designed to allow those users to move data more quickly, as the bits and bytes wouldn’t be routed to an out-of-state remote server. Users would also save money on data-transport costs.

According to regional Comcast spokesman Steve Kipp, the MSO has enabled peering for the University of Washington and the governments of both Seattle and King County.

But Mike Weisman, co-director of nonprofit watchdog group Reclaim the Media, said that’s as far as the peering arrangements extended. Comcast never allowed companies, including small Internet-service providers, to access its network.

The small ISPs approached system executives around the time that Comcast was completing its acquisition of predecessor company AT&T Broadband, said Kipp. Comcast tabled the ISPs’ request until it could finish the acquisition and complete its engineering work on system improvements, he said.

But during negotiations for the contract extension, the county determined that “it has no jurisdiction on this issue anyway,” Kipp said.

Comcast will continue to enable free peering for current educational and government users. But commercial providers will be charged “a competitive rate,” Kipp said, comparable to those charged by such providers as Sprint. That will allow Comcast to cover administrative costs.

Kevin Kearns, manager of the county’s Information and Telecommunications Services division, explained that to save money, the county gave Comcast a five-year extension rather than refranchsing the MSO. The current cable franchise had a 10-year term. County policy allows for franchises of up to 15 years.

Rather than incur the expense of a community-needs assessment and other procedures required in a refranchise, King County negotiated the five-year extension, Kearns said.

Opponents blasted the change in peering language and were also troubled by the change in PEG requirements.

The county agreed to reduce the number of channels set aside for PEG programming to eight from 10, Kipp said. It can choose to convert one of those analog channels into four digital slots, which would give the county 11 PEG channels to program.

PEG FEES DECLINE

The PEG fee — listed as a $1-per-month line item on consumers’ bills — will decline to 85 cents per month in year three of the new agreement. By the end of the extension, it will stand at 55 cents.

That money goes to the county and not to public-access producers, Weisman said. Without money to fund studios and equipment, the access channels currently in use will never reach the contract standard of 80% local content, which would activate the added PEG slots.

The county will get more DTV PEG channels when Comcast goes all-digital in the area. The Seattle region is currently planning its conversion to an all-digital network, Kipp said, but no certain transition date has been set.

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