Hope for Comcast in Contra Costa

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Members of the Contra Costa (Calif.) Cable Consortium and Comcast Corp. are hopeful a recent agreement in principle on access requirements could signal an end to franchise negotiations that have now stretched into a fourth year.

“We’re hoping in the next couple of months to bang out the remaining details,” said Andrew Johnson, vice president of communications in the state.

While keeping details private, both sides confirmed that support for public, educational and government access channels has been a stumbling block. The tentative accord could include turning PEG-access activities over to a community organization.

The consortium represents 135,000 cable subscribers in the unincorporated areas of Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay area and the cities of Clayton, Concord, Danville, Martinez, Moraga, Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek.

These are the last communities to conclude contract renegotiations in the large Bay Area cluster that Comcast inherited from AT&T Broadband.

Walnut Creek senior assistant attorney Paul Valle-Riestra said Comcast’s acquisition brought “a new company with a new set of priorities” to renewal talks.

“That set us back to square one,” he said.

With an agreement in principle in place, Comcast hopes the parties can negotiate to a final agreement within 60 days.

The tentative agreement “does represent progress, but it’s not a done deal,” Valle-Riestra said. “We’re more encouraged than we have been in the last couple of years.”

The slow talks, and a dispute specifically with the city of Walnut Creek, have been competitively painful for Comcast.

Due to a parallel dispute over the permitting process for a system upgrade for the upscale community, Comcast has yet to rebuild the plant from 450-MHz capability. That means it hasn’t been able to add such services as high-speed Internet, high-definition television and video on demand.

Walnut Creek and nearby Concord in 1999 gave a competitive franchise to Astound Broadband, doing business as Seren Innovations Inc. Astound should complete its construction of an 860-Mhz plant in the next few months.

In December, Astound announced it had passed the 50,000 services delivered mark in 24,000 homes passed in Concord and Walnut Creek, offering video, high-speed Internet and local and long-distance phone service.

Of the negotiations with Walnut Creek, Johnson said, “We want those permits. If we get permits, we could start work tomorrow.”

Valle-Riesta estimated that Walnut Creek has an 80% cable-penetration rate. About half of those consumers buy from Astound, he said.