Cable television customers on the Vineyard are all but assured of having Comcast service for the next 10 years, as a contract between the giant cable company and the six Island towns nears completion. But the question of whether the contract will guarantee service for outlying rural areas of the Island, including Chappaquiddick, remains unsettled.
Members of the Cable Advisory Board, the Islandwide organization responsible for negotiating a new cable franchise agreement, said this week they have turned over their recommendations to a Boston-area attorney for final review. The lawyer, William Solomon of Stoneham, will handle actual negotiations with Comcast, then report back to the board. The group hopes to have a signed agreement by year end.
It has been five months since the Island’s 10-year agreement with Comcast expired; the current provisions remain in effect until a new agreement is signed. Earlier this year, the board rejected Comcast’s formal response to the six towns’ request for proposals, setting in motion a negotiated agreement. Comcast is the only company to have responded to the RFP.
Cable advisory board chairman Jennifer Rand said the group has identified four major priorities in a new agreement: provisions for “build out,” that is, for providing service to areas currently not served by the cable company; emergency broadcasting capabilities; a fourth channel for MVTV and additional funds to provide capital equipment for MVTV.
“We’re looking for increased build out to get service to those that don’t have any; that’s a big issue and we’ll see how we make out with it,” she said.
Under the terms of the original franchise agreement reached 10 years ago, Comcast pays five per cent of the gross revenue it receives from Island subscribers to MVTV, the Vineyard’s public, education and government (PEG) station. Customers effectively pay the five per cent charge in higher fees on their bills. Comcast has already agreed to continue that assessment, Ms. Rand said.
The board also asked Comcast for $800,000 to keep MVTV’s equipment and facilities up to date. In its formal response to the RFP, Comcast offered $19,500.
On the issue of build out, Ms. Rand said the advisory board originally set out to count every house on the Island that needed service and began to do so by using maps provided by Comcast. Ms. Rand said the data provided by Comcast was not sufficient to proceed with that counting method, so the board instead turned to something called identity requirements.
The new method would establish which areas receive service based on a number of houses per mile formula. Many rural communities use this method; where, for example, there are 10 underserved homes along one mile of road the cable company would have to provide service to that neighborhood.
Ms. Rand said because negotiations are ongoing she would not release the Island’s requested formula. The area at greatest risk for not being counted in this method is Chappaquiddick, with houses spread out in isolated areas across the small island.
Edgartown town administrator and advisory board member Pamela Dolby said this week that the question of whether Chappaquiddick will get service hangs on whether Comcast and NStar can come to agreement to share conduits under Edgartown harbor.
NStar and Comcast exchanged a draft agreement earlier in the fall, but Mrs. Dolby said she has not heard of any updates since the end of September. NStar built new conduits last winter that connect from Dock street to Chappaquiddick in order to provide more reliable electricity. Comcast is hoping to lease one of the conduits for cable access. Absent an agreement with NStar, Comcast has said it would cost around $2 million to build its own conduits.
NStar representative Mike Durand said discussions are still ongoing between the two companies.
The Edgartown selectmen have consistently insisted Chappaquiddick be included in the negotiations, but selectman and board chairman Arthur Smadbeck said it wasn’t time to issue an ultimatum.
“We’re not at the bridge to cross yet,” he said. “I haven’t given it any thought. It’s way too early. The people who are negotiating the contract are still in the throes of doing it. We haven’t been presented with any options yet and we’ll certainly have a hardy discussion about it when they present us with options.”
The advisory board has distanced themselves from the Chappaquiddick negotiations, but still stands behind Edgartown.
“We have as a committee expressed our support for Edgartown, however we as a committee are allowing Edgartown, Comcast and NStar to work together,” Ms. Rand said. “When and if Edgartown need more from us we are standing by. They’re working hard on that themselves.
“Everyone’s working on the assumption we won’t need a plan B. I know it sounds ostrich-like, but it’s difficult to predict how six towns will react [if Chappaquiddick is not included], so I can’t predict the answer,” she said.