News

Calif. City: Comcast Missed Deadline

8/03/2003 8:00 PM Eastern

A Northern California city has voted to deny a refranchise proposal to Comcast Corp. on the grounds that regulators had no formal proposal to consider.

"They're out," said city councilman Pete Petrovich of Brentwood, Calif., which is not to be confused with the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. "They missed the deadline."

City officials assert the company missed a statutory deadline set in the rules for formal contract negotiation in the federal Cable Act.

The company was to submit a letter in writing — or appear in person before the city council — to affirm a pact before July 21, according to Petrovich. But no one appeared to address the council.

The council then voted to reject a refranchise, Petrovich said.

Comcast spokesman Bob Smith said the company did file a plan on July 23. According to the city, that plan was two days late. The operator said at least one city report had published a due date of July 23.

Was it a typo?

City officials said this was a typographical error, and noted that the majority of documents set July 21 as the due date.

A local Comcast executive will meet with the council at its next regularly scheduled meeting Aug. 12 to see if officials will look beyond the "technical problem" with the refranchise plan submission, said Smith.

Meanwhile, Comcast continues to serve its customers in the community and to complete its rebuild. Cities typically end up resolving such disagreements with cable operators, using the operator's faults as bargaining chips to gain concessions, such as institutional networks or cash payments.

"So far, talks have been amicable, professional and productive," Smith said of the negotiations with a city subcommittee, initiated prior to the filing gaffe. "We think it's time to get back to the table."

Negotiations date back to 1997, when the community opened informal refranchising talks with what at that time was Tele-Communications Inc., according to Brentwood cable consultant Dave Kinley.

That process moved slowly under successor company AT&T Broadband, but made strides under Comcast, Kinley said. Still, the community opted last September to continue the process under formal federal rules while still allowing negotiations to continue.

Rebuild shift

Representatives of the city, a 33,000-resident upper middle class community across the bay from San Francisco, thought they had an agreement on June 30.

But Comcast representatives introduced a major change: The company wanted to downgrade the rebuild, already in progress, to 750 Megahertz from the proposed 860 MHz.

Eight days later, local company representatives said corporate officials had dropped the downgrade plan, Petrovich said. Comcast was advised to write or have a representative appear in person to verify there was a tentative agreement under consideration at the 860-MHz rebuild standard. No one from Comcast attended either the July 8 or 21 council meetings, city officials said.

The council voted at the latter meeting to deny the refranchise proposal and begin the process of revoking the franchise.

Petrovich, a Viacom Cable veteran and an engineering consultant, said the process has raised doubts about the rebuild. The city thought the company was building an 860-MHz plant all along, then a 750-MHz plant was proposed at this late stage.

"There may be something here we don't know," he said.

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