Small Op Takes On Comcast

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A small Florida operator is relishing a federal court victory in its fight against competitor Comcast of the South, even though the owner predicted that the verdict will be short-lived.

On July 21, a jury took less than three hours to determine that the Comcast division violated the state’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act in its efforts to maintain clients among the condominiums that pepper the island community. The same panel awarded Marco Island Cable $3,268,392. Neither side in the dispute could explain the very specific amount of the verdict.

Comcast officials immediately announced that they would appeal the verdict, determined in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Fort Myers.

”Clearly, we were disappointed by the verdict and the exorbitant amount awarded by the jury,” said Larry Schweber, vice president and general manager of Comcast Southwest Florida. He added that the company is proud of the products and services it provides in the region, saying that since the dispute will be ongoing, it was not appropriate to comment further.

Bill Gaston, the owner of 8,800-subscriber Marco Island Cable, said he knew he was going up against big competitors when he began as a satellite-master-antenna-television distributor in his hometown in 1993. But in his prior business life, he had sold phone services in competition with Sprint, so he figured he could make it in the cable business, even in competition with then-provider Colony Communications.

Gaston later used his first SMATV client as the headend for a cable operation now franchised for the whole island.

Gaston said the larger, national companies that owned his competition through the years “always did everything they could to stop me.”

Despite their efforts to sign long-term contracts with the condo associations that pepper the 14-square-mile island -- the largest barrier island off southwest Florida near Naples -- Gaston became the more dominant provider on the island, with 80% penetration compared with Comcast’s 20%, according to filings in the suit.

Although his company is small, Gaston said his options were “a slow death” or an expensive lawsuit against a well-funded foe. He said the suit was triggered when Comcast technicians showed up two years ago at a condo that had recently switched its account to Marco Island. Technicians threatened to tear Comcast-owned wiring out of the wall, Gaston alleged.

“That was a signal to every other condo: If you switch, Comcast will come to your association to rip out the wires,” he added. “The intimidation worked.”

Gaston’s suit alleged everything from predatory pricing to violations of antitrust law. Most of the counts were rejected by the court in a July 3 ruling on a motion for summary judgment brought by the Comcast division. But one count remained: whether Comcast was guilty of unfair competition under state law.

“The jury sent Comcast a forceful message,” said Jim Baller, attorney for Marco Island Cable.

Gaston doubts, however, that he’ll get the $3 million. “I don’t think I’ll see a penny,” he said. An injunctive relief claim by Marco Island has yet to be heard, and Comcast shows no sign of backing down, he noted.

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