Assembly Bill Puts Comcast Cable Contract in Doubt

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday August 11, 2006

The City of Berkeley’s future plans to re-negotiate its contract with Comcast Corporation, the current provider of cable video services in Berkeley, stand to be threatened if a state-level legislative bill demanding the elimination of the role of local government in the franchise process is passed as early as Monday 

At the state level, Assembly Bill AB2987, sponsored by Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-L.A), was approved (77-0) by the state Assembly in June 2006 and will be going in front of the Appropriations Committee on Monday. 

If this bill passes, it will allow multiple franchisees into the public right of way, and will prevent local government from issuing exclusive franchises or extracting additional fees from any franchisee who wishes to provide video services to residents and businesses in the community.  

However, a newly introduced amendment by Sen. Joe Simitian (D—Palo Alto) may be able to rescue funding for local organizations such as Berkeley Community Media. This amendment will be put forward to the committee on Monday and will make the bill less damaging for community media. 

The amendment to AB2987 which has been enorsed by the Alliance for Community Media, states that “AB2987 must [maintain] [provide] the much needed financial support for the public, education, and government access (PEG) centers in the community. The ACM amendments recognize that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach shortchanges our state's smaller communities, and would force many existing PEG centers that serve them to slash services or even close their doors. The ACM amendments preserve the agreements that support existing community media centers and provide opportunities to build new centers throughout California.” 

The city’s current contract with Comcast Corp. is set for expiration on November 12, 2007. If the bill passes, Comcast will no longer need to renew its contract with the city and will be able to enter into a contract with the state. 

“This legislation could wipe out local control altogether. I am extremely concerned about the loss of funding which could undermine Berkeley Community Media and the city’s cable funding,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “These bills will eliminate the local government’s role in the franchise process and place it at the State level. Telecommunications law could be modified in a way that would threaten the city’s telecommunications revenue, control over the public right of way, or its ability to negotiate cable/video service agreements,” he added. 

Groups such as The League of California Cities Telecommunications Task Force and the States of California and Nevada chapter of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (SCAN NATOA) have been actively trying to work with the bill’s author to create a mutually acceptable piece of legislation that would protect the interests of local government. 

Sally Williams, former chairperson of the Telecommunications Task Force and a member of SCAN NATOA told the Planet that despite these attempts the bill is all set to pass next week. “It’s pretty much a done deal. The city has sent out letters and has been very involved in the whole franchising process. But the telecommunication companies have been very persuasive and they no longer want to pay the franchisee fees to the city.” 

City staff has assisted Assemblywoman Loni Hancock and Mayor Tom Bates since Spring 2006 to advocate for the preservation of local city authority in the regulation of cable video franchises. According to a letter submitted by City Manager Phil Kamlarz to Mayor Tom Bates and the City Council, the main items that need protection in the new legislation include the following: local public access programming, institutional networks for local government, an adequate definition of franchise fees for local governments, permitting authority for telecom work in the public right of way, consumer protections, and anti-redlining provisions to ensure full system buildout among others. 

Williams added that the legislation would revolutionize how people get telecommunication services, phone services, Internet services, and video services in their homes.  

“The telecom and cable companies will have a free hand in saying what is Basic Cable. There will be a greater digital divide. Services will be very costly but the quality of service will be inferior,” she said. 

Williams added that although cities across California have held public meetings asking community members about their ideas on the subject, Berkeley has refrained from doing so. “The city was supposed to be representing the subscribers. It’s very unfortunate that the community was kept out of the loop. So much could have been done through letter campaigns,” she said. 

The city’s cable franchise for video services has been renewed and transferred several times since its initiation in 1968, with the most recent being the transfer of the franchise from AT&T to Comcast Corporation in 2002. The local franchising authority status that the city obtained from the FCC in 1992 allows it to regulate the rates for Basic Cable, the rates for installation and repair, as well as to enforce customer service standards which will all be taken away if the bill passes.  

The city received a total of $667,000 in franchise fees on cable service for fiscal year 2005. Changes in state and federal law could lead to reduced revenues to the City from these sources.