Council approves Comcast deal

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by Peter Lewis, Seattle Times

Over the objections of some community members ��� and after some 28 months of negotiations ��� the Metropolitan King County Council yesterday approved a five-year contract extension affecting 80,000 Comcast cable-TV subscribers.

Under the deal, the county will get $1.2 million, but will give up the use of two channels for public, educational and government programming, also known as PEG channels.

Details of the new deal were not publicly disclosed until late last week, which some critics suggested was insufficient time for comment before yesterday's 9-3 vote. Councilmen Bob Ferguson, Larry Gossett and Larry Phillips dissented; Councilman Rob McKenna was absent.

Kevin Kearns, the county's director of information and telecommunications services, said the new deal is essentially the same package that had been on the table a year ago and has been the subject of extensive public comment. One significant improvement, he added, was Comcast's agreement to guarantee a certain quantity of bandwidth ��� 6 megahertz ��� which will become especially valuable once the cable company's programming goes all digital.

Councilwoman Jane Hague, who steered the legislation, characterized the deal as "one of the best in the nation," but acknowledged it wasn't perfect. She noted that government control over cable rates is limited and said the county's bargaining position had weakened with a decline in subscribers in unincorporated King County, which a decade ago numbered nearly 125,000 households.

Among the people who testified against the proposal was Bob Hasegawa of Seattle, recently elected to the state House of Representatives from the 11th Legislative District. Hasegawa, who used to be a union negotiator, called the agreement "very concessionary" and said it gave up too much in the way of public-access channels.

County officials started to rethink the contract after questions were raised about the value of analog channels such as the ones it is returning to Comcast. In court, Comcast had admitted it valued such channels at more than $2 million each.

But Mike Alvine, a county staffer who served on its negotiating team, noted that Comcast had produced that value in a case involving the city of San Jose, which has a larger subscriber base.

In addition, the figure apparently referred to Comcast's gross revenues, not its profit, he said. Perhaps most important, in the year since the $2 million-per-channel figure was disclosed, "there has not been one settlement in the U.S. where the company [Comcast] has bought back an analog channel for anywhere near that amount of money," Alvine said.

Comcast spokesman Steve Kipp said, "We're pleased that the County Council has approved the extension. ... "

He noted that under the terms, consumers eventually will see a 45-cent-a-month reduction in the fees they pay to support PEG channels.

With the deal approved, the existing franchise with Comcast has been extended to Feb. 16, 2010.

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