With the agreement entered into a decade ago between Martha’s Vineyard towns and Comcast coming up for renewal, Island residents now have their chance to pass judgment on the performance of the cable company.
“What this is,” according to MVTV’s executive director Julienne Turner, “is a review of how the company has performed in the past and what we might need moving forward so that we can be smart about negotiating that agreement for the next 10 years.”
The expiring contract made a lot of promises. There was, for example, a commitment from Comcast that under “normal operating conditions” subscribers who called them would be answered by a “customer service representative” within 30 seconds. Furthermore, if a call had to transferred to someone else at Comcast, the transfer time also would be under 30 seconds, at least 90 per cent of the time.
Requests for service or repair would be prompt, the document says. They would be acted upon the same day, if possible, and certainly within 48 hours. Requests received after hours would be dealt with on the next business day.
There were many more promises, about sufficient numbers of customer service representatives, about close and easily accessible service offices and so on.
So, has the Island’s cable company lived up to the terms of the agreement, made through the towns, to Island customers?
How is your Internet speed? Its reliability? How’s your TV picture? Your customer service? Are you happy with the channels you get in your package?
As the Island towns renegotiate the franchise deal with Comcast for another 10 years, residents now have the chance to have their say on the service they have received from the Island’s monopoly cable provider.
But beyond that, they have a once-in-a-decade chance to have input on what future services they, their schools, community groups, businesses and local government would like to include in the new franchise agreement.
It is a big deal, financially. On average, people spend $71 a month on cable. Comcast has about 10,000 subscribers on the Vineyard. That equates to revenue of some $85 million a year, according to Ms. Turner.
And it’s a big deal, particularly, for MVTV, as Ms. Turner explained. Five per cent of Comcast’s gross revenue from its Island customers goes to funding the three MVTV channels.
“According to federal law, the towns can negotiate for up to five per cent of the cable company’s gross revenues to go to community media and cable-related services. And that’s us.”
Comcast currently provides some $400,000 each year, through the towns, to the station.
The way the process works is that Comcast has submitted a request for a renewal of its franchise agreement with the Island towns, when its current agreement expires next June.
“They have a 10-year license agreement, which essentially gives them permission to use the public rights of way for their cable in our community. In exchange, they have to give something back, which is negotiated in advance of that agreement,” Ms. Turner said.
“So what’s happening is that MVTV is working with the towns to get input from the community on what people believe their interests might be,” she said.
The process is intended to do more than just provide a forum for people to complain about Comcast.
The aim is to educate people on the future possibilities of cable technology, and to consider how community groups and organizations, schools, businesses, and government agencies could use a cable communication system.
“There will be discussions about potential future traffic — it’s a broader scope than just cable television,” Ms. Turner said.
A cable advisory committee, made up of a representative from each town is charged with overseeing the negotiation process, and they in turn have engaged an attorney, David Solomon, she said.
Meanwhile, the various Island towns began the process of getting that input back in August, at a series of meetings.
“But I heard they were lightly attended,” said Ms. Turner.
Now MVTV also has organized a round of community consultations, to get a better picture of what Islanders want from the new agreement.
The consultations will take place over three days, from Nov. 16 to 18, and are designated as focus groups catering separately to various interests — health and human services, arts and cultural organizations, religious and spiritual groups, educators and teachers, municipal groups and town departments, nonprofit organizations.
But, she said, anyone interested in the future of cable service on the Island, and particularly in community TV, could turn up.
Alternatively, they could take part in an online survey now on the MVTV Web site.
“I just hope a lot of people turn up,” said Ms. Turner.