Better broadband should be part of Baltimore's Comcast negotiations

Op-ed: Better broadband should be part of Baltimore's Comcast negotiations

The Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications (MOCC) is currently renegotiating the existing Comcast television franchise agreement struck 12 years ago. Part of that discussion should be focused on broadband, considering that the same cables that deliver TV also carry the Internet. And access to high-speed Internet is of much greater importance to Baltimore than the latest episode of "Walking Dead."

City Council members are considering broadband improvements in a public hearing tomorrow; they must demand that the Comcast franchise be improved and that it contribute to bringing better broadband to Baltimore, which lacks both adequate fiber optic infrastructure and competition among broadband providers.

The Comcast franchise is a non-exclusive agreement between Comcast and Baltimore City allowing Comcast to provide cable television services. Comcast pays 60 cents per cable TV subscriber per month plus 5 percent of gross revenue for cable TV services for the right to use public property to deliver its product. Comcast is required to pay additional fees when using city conduit or poles.

The fees Comcast is required to pay are large and could help improve the fiber optic infrastructure, but the company has failed to fulfill some of its commitments, and the city has not enforced them. Estimated franchise and PEG fees (paid to support government and educational television) exceed $7 million a year, but coding errors led Comcast to underpay by nearly $1 million between 2006 and 2013, according to audits we obtained in response to a Public Information Act request filed with MOCC. To the city's credit, officials found these deficiencies, but the audit results should have been publicly announced.

Such payment deficiencies are apparently the pattern, not the exception, with audits in multiple other cities showing similar findings.

According to information provided by the city, this year Comcast has been billed conduit fees of around $3 million. Despite our PIA request, the city has not confirmed that Comcast has paid these fees.

Collecting the fees is one thing. Spending them wisely is another. Unfortunately, according to MOCC representatives, these fee amounts go into the general revenue and are not consistently directed to improving broadband infrastructure. This is at a time when the city's broadband consultants stress the importance of determining the location, condition and capacity of all existing conduit in the city.

The franchise also allows the city, under FCC authority, to hold Comcast accountable for their quality of service. But the city has yet to establish that it is exercising that right. Comcast is required to file regular reports regarding service interruption and subscriber complaints, annual technical reports, and compliance reports for minority and women based employment. Despite our PIA request to MOCC, the city has not yet been able to produce these reports.

A city commissioned survey by CBG Communications shows that Comcast has not fully complied with franchise requirements in the past. Two examples: Comcast is required to answer calls within 30 seconds, yet 55 percent of respondents said their calls were not answered in that time; 20 percent of respondents had an outage lasting greater than the 24-hour requirement.

When Comcast is challenged on these matters and when an attempt is made to improve the franchise through transparency — particularly with regard to accurate reporting and collection of fees — we expect it to push back. And that pushback may affect politicians' decisions.

In Maryland in 2014, cable, telephone and telecom firms contributed over $500,000 to political campaigns, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. And nationwide last year, telecommunication and cable providers spent over $88 million on lobbying, with Comcast spending the most: over $15 million according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In our renegotiated franchise to replace the current one, which expires in December, Baltimore must insist that all reporting and all payments are up to date. The city must establish clear performance metrics that are regularly released to the public, with penalties established and implemented for noncompliance. Annual audits should occur with the results released immediately. Franchise fees and conduit payments should be directed toward improving broadband. Broadband is as important to Baltimore as other utilities; it is vital to the economic growth and the future of our city.

Philip J. Spevak (pjspevak@gmail.com), Stan Wilson and Jere Morrel are co-leaders of the Baltimore Broadband Coalition, but they submitted the op-ed as individuals, not on behalf of the organization.

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