Cable Talks

In a small room on the second floor of West Tisbury town hall this week, a crowd of maybe one actual spectator gathered to hear the latest on the state of play between the Davids of Martha’s Vineyard and the Goliath known as Comcast.

It was a public meeting of the Cable Advisory Board, a little known but hugely important group of six people — one representing each of our Island towns — who are negotiating (with the help of a Boston-area lawyer) the terms under which we will be served by what is apparently the only cable company interested in providing service to the residents of the Vineyard.

It is now four months since the Island’s last ten-year contract with Comcast expired, but there is no burning need to sign a new one quickly. The old contract terms remain in effect until a new contract is signed, and the Cable Advisory Board is prudently taking its time to make sure it gets this one right. Earlier this year the advisory board received and rejected a four-inch-thick renewal proposal from Comcast, setting the stage for a negotiated agreement. The target date for renewal is November, but that date seems likely to slip again.

Comcast now serves about ten thousand Vineyard homes with its cable TV service, but many Island residents also rely on Comcast for Internet and telephone service as well. A key issue in the renewal discussions is what is known as build out, i.e., to what degree the Vineyard can require Comcast to provide service to homes that cannot currently receive cable.

Residents of Chappaquiddick have been especially vocal about the need to obtain cable service, but there are other pockets of homes throughout the Vineyard, some in remote areas, that also need attention. Their pleas have merit. As much as many of us yearn to be unconnected for weeks or even months at a time, it’s difficult to find an occupation anymore that doesn’t require high-speed Internet access, certainly at your year-round home, but even if you are fortunate enough to split your time between the Island and another place.

In many rural communities, the standard cable companies work to is based on the number of houses per mile. For example, if there are fifteen unserved homes along a mile of road, the cable company would be required to provide cable service to that neighborhood. The principle makes sense, but does not necessarily account for places like, say, Chappaquiddick, where one must traverse a body of water before getting to the next population center.

After months of wrangling with Comcast, the Cable Advisory Board has detailed maps of the where Comcast now provides service and where it does not. The maps are still not quite accurate, but advisory board members agreed this week to look at them house by house over the next two weeks and identify the gaps.

The next step will be to come up with a list of neighborhoods, roads and houses that advisory board members deem of highest priority and get specific about what Comcast will do and when.

The Cable Advisory Board has other things on its wish list as well: emergency broadcasts, senior citizens rates, creating a fourth public access channel and securing capital funds to upgrade equipment for MVTV. These will be prioritized and presented to Comcast by the Island’s attorney when the detailed negotiations begin.

The advisory board also knows that its work cannot end with a new contract, that it needs to show the same detailed attention to what Comcast does after a contract is signed.

It is hard to think of what good is being served by detailing one’s negotiation strategy at a public meeting, especially if your opponent is a Goliath. For that reason, perhaps it’s a good thing that the Cable Advisory Board’s spectator list can be counted on one finger.

The members of the board are Pam Dolby of Edgartown, Jennifer Rand of West Tisbury, Richard Skidmore of Aquinnah, Tim Carroll of Chilmark, Fred LaPiana of Tisbury and Doug Best of Oak Bluffs.

They are on the right track, and should be encouraged.