Comcast franchise negotiations begin

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2012 - 7:43 PM

Local programming will be a key focus for the northern Dakota County franchise agreement starting in 2015.

The city council meeting, the graduation ceremony, the school board discussion, youth sports: These and other community events go out as television programs to the 22,000 Comcast cable customers in northern Dakota County.

Preserving such local programming under the next franchise agreement with Comcast is a key goal for the Northern Dakota County Cable Commission, officials say. Preparing to have a renewed franchise signed by 2015, the commission is gearing up for what could be two years of negotiations.

"It's a big deal," said commission Chairman George Tourville, Inver Grove Heights mayor.

The franchise agreement will set the fee Comcast pays the cities and establish service guidelines for possibly 15 years into the future. Under the current agreement, the commission collects the maximum franchise fees allowed by federal law -- 5 percent of Comcast's gross revenues on cable TV.

The commission has no authority over what Comcast charges customers, but it protects the public interest by securing a fee, requiring local programming and outlining how Comcast must respond to customer complaints, said Brian Grogan, an attorney with Moss Barnett who will represent the cable commission in the negotiations.

"If the commission didn't exist, there would not be any opportunity for cities, school districts or members of the public to put out information on their topics of interest," he said.

The hardest part of protecting the public interest in the negotiations is "looking ahead and trying to envision what you will need in the future," said cable commission executive director Jodie Miller.

The contract is worth about $20 million -- about $1.35 million a year -- for the seven cities represented by the commission: Inver Grove Heights, Lilydale, Mendota, Mendota Heights, South St. Paul, Sunfish Lake and West St. Paul. The cities use the money to televise city council meetings and for other local programming needs.

The current agreement also provides a network linking 13 institutions -- schools, cities, libraries -- at 41 sites in the seven communities.

The institutions paid for the installation of the network, but Comcast has not charged for traffic or usage. That has saved thousands of dollars for the institutions, but it may be something Comcast wants to charge for in the next agreement, Grogan said.

Comcast -- the only cable company in the area -- must have a franchise agreement because it runs its cable along the public rights of way.

"We are offering them the right of way to be either on poles or in the ground," Tourville said. "They are able to sell the service along the route." In return, Comcast pays a franchise fee.

Eagan and Burnsville have separate franchises with Comcast, and each of their franchises will expire in 2015 as well. Jointly, the two cities last week advertised to hire a consultant to review financial records and report on whether Comcast correctly paid past fees. Eagan has approximately 15,595 residents who are Comcast subscribers and Burnsville about 13,750.

The Northern Dakota County Cable Commission was formed by the seven smaller cities in 1982. It has a studio in Inver Grove Heights, where it produces local programs.

Dish Network and Direct TV also offer television service in the area, but they do not carry local programming and are not governed by the cable commission.

"Local programming is one of the backbones of cable TV," Tourville said. "Your son is playing football or your daughter is playing soccer and you have it on TV for grandma who can't get out."

The franchise negotiations presume that Comcast will end with a contract renewal, but the talks are expected to be lengthy.

"Comcast has become bigger and bigger, and they own a lot of stuff and they are a billion-dollar corporation," Tourville said. "They would like to pay less and less, and we would like them to pay more and more."

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287

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