The St. Paul City Council is expected Wednesday to approve a 10-year cable TV franchise agreement with Comcast, the media giant that’s anticipated to merge and transfer its subscribers to another cable provider.
The agreement, hammered out over four years, requires Comcast to pay the city 5 percent of its gross annual revenue and a 2.5 percent public access fee for the St. Paul Neighborhood Network, which offers government and educational programming. That amounts to roughly $3.5 million per year.
The agreement also requires Comcast to base 17 percent of its metro workforce in St. Paul and promises the gradual introduction of high-definition for the public channels.
It also offers discounted service for senior citizens and low-income residents, and ensures that Comcast will maintain a service center in St. Paul.
The terms of the agreement would transfer to GreatLand Connections, a new telecommunications entity, should Comcast merge with Time Warner Cable as planned and the federal government approve of the merger.
Financial Services Director Todd Hurley told the council last week that city officials, “are all confident that we have secured a very robust franchise … that actually achieves several if not all of the goals that we set out to achieve.”
But former school board member Tom Goldstein doesn’t believe the agreement goes far enough to improve customer service.
Goldstein was the only person testifying last week on the agreement, citing his frustrations with Comcast and what he called its “horrible reputation for customer service.” He also chided the council for not seeking more public feedback.
For Comcast, the St. Paul cable franchise is worth an estimated $51.5 million annually — more than enough to give the city leverage to demand more of the cable provider, such as a call center in St. Paul rather than overseas, Goldstein said.
Under the terms of the agreement, Comcast can be penalized for failing to address complaints within three days.
But a settlement that the council also will approve Wednesday — in which Comcast will pay the city $200,000 for three-year-old “noncompliance issues” involving the city’s in-house network, insufficient franchise payments and “failure to meet customer service and reporting requirements” — suggests that penalties take some time to levy.
The agreement doesn’t bar the door to citywide competition, such as that expected to come soon from CenturyLink. The company is seeking a cable franchise in Minneapolis for its Prism TV service and has expressed interest in doing the same in St. Paul. Tarek Tomes, the city’s chief information officer, thinks negotiations will begin this year.
Comcast also will provide a high-speed “business class” intranet service to link the city’s public buildings, Tomes said. If Comcast’s performance is unsatisfactory, the agreement allows the city to use the fiber network itself.
Council Member Dave Thune said he knew of several positive Comcast service episodes, including his own after he accidentally cut a cable with a chain saw.
“I think we’ve got a good agreement, within the range that we can make decisions and make an agreement … I don’t have any apologies for it,” Thune said.
The mayor’s office is staying clear of the debate since Chris Coleman’s younger brother, Emmett Coleman, is a Comcast vice president.