King County says yes to Comcast, no to community media

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Reclaim the Media STATEMENT on King County Council's Dec. 2004 proposal to extend its cable franchise agreement with Comcast

Reversing course from stated goals and rhetoric, the King County Council has capitulated to the wishes of the Comcast Corporation in a new agreement to extend Comcast's cable franchise in the county, expected to be approved this Monday. The proposed agreement, negotiated privately by County staff, turns back a decade of investment in innovation by acceding to terms dictated by the nation���s largest cable company, without due public process or consideration of public interest concerns.

According to a summary released by Council staff, the proposed agreement cuts support for the County���s institutional network or I-Net, an innovative system linking together County public utilities, libraries and schools with a dedicated broadband communications network. The agreement reduces access to community media, educational, and government channels on the system, and abandons currently allocated analog channels in exchange for a one time payment of $1.2 million. Comcast documents indicate the market value of the analog channels surrendered is at least $21 million each. Despite earlier commitments and a substantial record of constituent support for these programs, the proposed agreement includes zero support for public access or government cable programming, and zero financing for extension of the I-Net���both crucial public benefits dependent upon revenues from the cable franchise.

The County's current agreement with Comcast included 'peering point' provisions intended to guarantee local Internet service providers open access to the company's network. The County was justifably proud of this provision favoring small businesses. However, as local ISP representatives informed Councilors Dow Constantine and Dwight Pelz at a public meeting earlier this year, Comcast had never met the terms of the franchise and had never opened its network to local peering. Rather than insist upon greater compliance, the new proposed franchise agreement actually rewards Comcast by eliminating most of the ���peering point��� conditions and granting the company the right to charge for access it was previously required to provide for free. The proposed agreement also clarifies the terms under which local ISPs can access the network peering point, hopefully providing some relief to local businesses that have not enjoyed the benefits intended over the last ten years.

Last winter, Reclaim the Media revealed evidence that the County's plans to return unused channel bandwidth to Comcast represented a tremendous loss of potential revenue and public value. While we succeeded in slowing the Council's swift progress toward signing such a bad deal, the Council responded by delegating negotiation of the franchise to its staff, rather than launching a public, accountable process. The resulting agreement represents a step backward from the County's current agreement negotiated by Gary Locke, and betrays statements made by County Executive Ron Sims during his gubernatorial bid, promising to come back after the election with an improved new proposal. If there was ever a situation pointing to the danger of a ���do-it-yourself��� approach to cable franchise renewal, this is it. Having foregone the necessary step of ascertaining the community's real technology needs through a professional, public assessment process, the County lacked a strong negotiating position as it entered franchise extension talks, and appears to have utterly capitulated to the preferences of Comcast.

The County's proposed agreement does not appear to require that Comcast provide public access, educational and government (PEG) channels to its first-tier subscribers. The proposal does contain provisions for the allocation of new PEG channels, once Comcast makes the switch to a fully digital system. These provisions may be deceptive, however. While the 80,000 cable customers in unincorporated King County are rapidly subscribing to digital cable, the proposed agreement specifies no system conversion deadline that would trigger the provision of additional PEG channels. Even if Comcast agrees to provide new channels, it is unclear what programming would occupy them, since under the new proposal, the County voluntarily gives up revenues for financing noncommercial PEG programming, revenues it has a right to under the law. Without a financial plan supporting the production of local programming, Comcast may be able to avoid providing additional public channels at all���rendering worthless the proposed agreement's digital PEG provisions.

King County has passed up hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct revenue with its proposed franchise extension, revenue the County can ill afford to lose. And yet the County finds itself boxed in by its own financial situation, unable to successfully exploit new revenue opportunities when available, ���for the want of a nail.���

On Monday, King County turns its back on a brighter future for community technology and community media. Council President Larry Philips once famously remarked that the County has no business being involved with the Internet. With this short-sighted franchise extension, the Council does reduce its involvement with public Internet resources. But for the citizens of King County, including areas such as Vashon Island which are typically underserved by high-bandwidth network access, this franchise extension closes the door on years' worth of progress in education, cultural expression and economic development.

For the County government, it also closes the door on an easy and logical opportunity to take leadership in the pursuit of a regional approach to cable franchising, technology infrastructure and economic growth. King County and other regional communities will have to wait years before a similar opportunity returns.

FOR REFERENCE:

Petition to King County Council

Reclaim the Media op-ed: Comcast can do better by subscribers (18 Dec. 2003)

Reclaim the Media op-ed: King County residents deserve a better cable deal (20 Jan. 2004)

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey