Modesto Zaps Comcast With $1M Fine


The Modesto, Calif., City Council has fined Comcast Corp. just over $1 million for failing to properly ground its cable drops by the deadline set in its franchise agreement.

As many as 22,300 Modesto cable homes —or 29% of households within the franchise — are improperly grounded and ripe for in-home accidents. Modesto, a city of roughly 180,000 residents in agricultural central California, has roughly 78,000 cable homes.

City officials have tried to resolve the grounding issues, first raised in 2001, with the system's last four owners.

Going to court

In addition to imposing the fine by a 7-0 margin on June 24, the council directed Modesto's attorney to immediately seek a court injunction that would require Comcast to check and remove any plant the city deems improperly grounded, said deputy city manager Donna Hansen. Such a move could force the operator to remove both active and inactive drops.

The city is also seeking reimbursement for staff and inspection costs.

Representatives of United Cable/Comcast, as the local franchise is identified, have argued they are rectifying the problem, inherited from AT&T Broadband. It will take at least 18 months to check and repair bad drops, they said.

But the local system faces more fines if it sticks to that timeframe. The current fine covers the period from May 14 to June 3.

Going forward, the fine will be $1 per home violation per day, escalating every two months by 10 cents per home, Hansen said.

Op says 'excessive'

"We feel the fines are excessive and inappropriate," said Comcast spokeswoman Susan Gonzales, who noted that the operator has worked diligently to resolve the grounding issues.

"The hazard has been greatly exaggerated by some," she said.

Comcast is still reviewing the council's action and will consider all its options, both legal and otherwise, Gonzales said.

But the fines are very reasonable, Hansen countered — they are just 1% of the amount the city is authorized to charge under the terms of the franchise transfer Comcast agreed to following its merger with AT&T Broadband.

The city franchise calls for at least 90% of cable drops to meet minimum electrical standards. AT&T reported in March that it was on pace to meet that mark. At that time, 71% of the system was in compliance.

"It was 71% when AT&T left, it's 71% now. Nothing's changed," Hansen said. The city wants the fine paid and Comcast to get moving on repairs, she said.

'Not a trivial task'

"Proper grounding of a cable-TV service drop is not a trivial task. It's not just 'slapping a wire between two points' and saying it's grounded," said Jonathan Kramer of Kramer.Firm Inc., Modesto's consultant.

The National Electrical Code, adopted by Modesto and virtually every local and state government, contains very specific wiring and installation requirements designed to protect the public's safety and property. Proper grounding to meet the NEC requirements requires a through understanding of the Code; planning; and quality assurance oversight, he added.

Since the issue first appeared in the local press, Modesto city hall has received e-mails from residents who want to know if recent TV receiver failures or house fires can be traced to grounding errors, Hansen said.

Modesto's fire chief is examining the issue, city officials said.