More than a year after an Islandwide contract with the cable television giant Comcast expired, a proposed new contract that includes service to Chappaquiddick has come before the six-town negotiating committee.
A final proposal from Comcast was sent to the Vineyard cable advisory committee on Sept. 6. After months of keeping its cards close to the vest on the subject of service to Chappaquiddick, Comcast is now proposing a $1.58 million project to bring cable service to the small island that is part of the town of Edgartown. Under the proposal, subscribers and the cable company would share the cost of installing conduit.
“There’s definitely been movement,” Edgartown town administrator Pam Dolby said at a cable advisory committee meeting on Wednesday this week.
The committee’s attorney William Solomon participated via conference call. Mr. Solomon was also scheduled to attend the all-Island selectmen’s meeting last night, where an update on the cable contract was on the agenda for discussion.
If cable service comes to Chappy under the terms of the proposal now on the table, it will not come cheaply. The Comcast proposal is calling for a one-time up-front payment by subscribers that would range from about $1,500 to about $3,800 depending on the participation rate. According to the Comcast proposal there are 540 homes on Chappaquiddick. With 100 per cent participation, the one-time fee paid by a subscriber would be $1,526. With 40 per cent participation, the one-time fee would be $3,815. The proposal requires a minimum 40 per cent participation and a commitment by homeowners to subscribe year-round for two years.
The Island’s last cable contract expired in June 2011. Negotiations for a new franchise agreement for service to all six Vineyard towns have been ongoing since then. Representatives from each town serve on the cable advisory committee, and once a final deal is struck, each town will have its own contract with Comcast.
Until a new agreement is reached, the expired contract remains in effect. Negotiations were targeted for completion by the end of 2011.
Service to Chappaquiddick has been a chief sticking point. Edgartown left the negotiating table in December 2011 and said it would not return until Chappaquiddick was included in the agreement. In an act of support for Edgartown, Tisbury pulled out a short time later. Both towns returned to the table in March.
This week Mrs. Dolby questioned how Comcast arrived at the $1.58 million figure to bring service to Chappy. An underwater conduit already exists, laid by the power company NStar two years ago. NStar reached an agreement this spring with Comcast to use the conduit to run cable under the Edgartown harbor. Few details are known about the agreement.
“We’ve never seen it and I’m pretty certain we won’t, but an agreement exists between Comcast and NStar,” committee chairman and West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand said.
Mrs. Dolby pressed for details.
“I have no way of dealing with the cost of the project because we have no information about any agreement with NStar,” Mrs. Dolby said. “How are they going to get these people to sign up?”
She also questioned the two-year commitment without offering a seasonal rate, and requested that the subscriber contribution be spread out over two years.
“If they had an option to spread it out that would be something I would be interested in hearing their reaction to,” Mrs. Dolby said.
Mr. Solomon was generally positive about the recent progress.
“If we get the two-year provision on the look-back and [review] of the two-year payment, I think this should be a deal,” the attorney said. “The one
thing I can’t judge is the $1.58 million . . .
[Comcast] needs to give us some reasonably detailed breakdown so we can make a judgment if that’s a reasonable amount.”
Other questions include the pricing details for installation, restrictions on installations and whether individual property owners may install their own conduit.
In another concession for the towns, Comcast is now calling for underserved areas to be determined by dwelling units per mile rather than subscribers, Mr. Solomon said. He said a density formula based on dwellings and not subscribers is something Comcast has never used before.
“That’s a huge win,” he said, but he also said the current formula does not work. The committee will ask Comcast for a lower number.
Also in the proposal is a plan to put $500,000 in capital toward MVTV (up dramatically from the $25,000 in the last contract), a 10 per cent senior discount (also not in the last contract), a fourth public access channel and an emergency alert system.
In an e-mail to the Gazette yesterday, Comcast spokesman Doreen Vigue said the cable company is “grateful to Island officials for their continued cooperation. We look forward to finalizing our talks in the near future.”