Comcast franchise agreement approved as leaders, residents press for service expansion

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: Dec. 28, 2017 | 10:40 a.m.

DINWIDDIE – After months of back and forth between Dinwiddie County and one of the largest telecommunications entities in the nation, Dinwiddie supervisors unanimously adopted a new franchise agreement between the county and Comcast for video-related services, much to the chagrin of residents who wanted to see internet services mentioned in the ten-year agreement.

The decision to approve the agreement came during the board’s lone meeting in December following a public hearing on the agreement, which spells out various aspects of Comcast providing video cable services to residents in Dinwiddie.

According to county documents and an overview presentation provided by Comcast’s Government Affairs representative Nathan Daugherty, the non-exclusive agreement between the county and Comcast lays out construction and technical standards, restoration of right-of-way, relocation of facilities, and tree trimming, providing video services to county buildings and schools, and customer service standards as spelled out by the Federal Communications Commission. The agreement also “maintains one [Public/Educational/Government] access channel, and adds a fiber connection to facilitate content insertion,” with that line being located at Pamplin Historical Park just off U.S. Route 1.

During last week’s public hearing and the discussion that preceded the vote, the aspect of the agreement that drew the most conversation was what Comcast’s overview of the agreement calls the “General Service Obligations,” which lays out details for “automatic construction to areas with 25 dwelling units per mile”

According to the now-adopted agreement, Comcast would be obligated to provide video service to every residential dwelling unit as long as the minimum density of 25 homes is met, which the company measures in “strand footage from termination of the nearest point on the Cable System trunk or feeder line from which a usable cable signal can be obtained.”

In addition, a home would be considered a “dwelling unit” if “such home is within 350 feet of the Public Way.” Comcast will also be obligated to provide service to “all new homes or previously unserved homes located within 200 feet of [Comcast’s] distribution cable at the standard installation rate.”

The section goes on to say that Comcast “may elect to provide Cable Service to areas not meeting … density and distance standards,” but Comcast “may impose additional charges in excess of its regular installation charge for any service installation requiring a drop in or line extension” in excess of the agreement’s prescribed standards. Those charges would be “paid by the developer, landowner, or customer requesting Cable Service in an area that doesn’t meet density and distance requirements.”

This is the first agreement between Dinwiddie and Comcast, owners of NBCUniversal, since 2011 when the county’s previous agreement with the company expired. According to Dinwiddie County Attorney Tyler Southall, shortly after the agreement’s 2011 expiration, Comcast reached out to the county seeking to renew its cable agreement, but after sending a draft agreement to Comcast for consideration in 2012 based on the City of Lynchburg’s agreement and the Virginia Municipal League’s modal, “Comcast did not pursue further negotiations based on that document until 2017.” 

Following a renewed request from Comcast in May, Southall said a copy of the 2012 draft agreement was provided to the company and following extensive markups from Comcast and back-and-forth negotiations with the company, the result was the agreement approved by supervisors last Tuesday.

For Comcast’s Daugherty, he believes the agreement will allow for the service provider to continue to bring its service to Dinwiddie residents and hopefully more over the course of the next decade.

“Comcast has done a lot to provide additional video services,” Daugherty said to supervisors and residents. “This agreement provides ten more years with the county to continue to expand on the products that we offer and working with Dinwiddie County.” 

Tuesday’s public hearing only saw one person speak in regards to the agreement, with Waterford Landing resident Mike May telling supervisors he felt the agreement was only providing “half of what” residents need.

“We need internet,” he said. “I don’t hear anybody saying, no matter what part of the county it is, that they can’t get video. You’re being sold a bill of goods that is no more than what we have now.”

The over 30-page agreement doesn’t spell out anything relating to internet services as the franchise agreement between the county and company is only pertaining to video cable services.

According to Dinwiddie’s County Attorney Southall, the county cannot require internet connectivity as part of a franchise agreement and due to regulations from the Federal Communications Commission, the agency finds it ” unreasonable … for a [local franchising authority] to refuse to grant a franchise based on issues related to non-cable services,” such as internet service, or facilities because an LFA’s jurisdiction applies only to the provision of cable services over cable systems.”

While the agreement doesn’t specifically say anything regarding internet, Daugherty said, when they expand into a community, Comcast “provides the full suite” of their available services, including internet, phone, and their home security platform. 

For Supervisors William Chavis and Dr. Mark Moore, their concerns focused on a seeming lack of expansion of Comcast’s services through Dinwiddie.

“Four out of five of the board members sitting here don’t have video service,” Moore said to Daugherty. “That makes it difficult on all of us when four-fifths of the county’s representation does not have a lot of your products.”

According to a coverage map provided by Comcast Xfinity cable authorized retailer, the northern reaches of Dinwiddie County closest to Petersburg and parts of U.S. Route 1 and 460 falls within their service area.

“We all want it but you’re not willing to give it unless you have 25 to 30 homes,” Chavis said, speaking to the agreement’s automatic expansion provision. “We know you have areas where there are 30 houses, but you don’t want to put forth the effort to connect.”

“We’re a rural county and you’re not going to spend money to help us,” he continued. I get that you’re in business, but what are you going to do to help students in our county.”

According to Daugherty and the agreement, courtesy video service is provided to schools in the county. He added that the company does provide its “Internet Essentials” package where those with children in homes that are within Comcast’s service footprint and are receiving free and reduced lunch at school can get internet service for $9.99 a month, along with a free router to receive service.

Regarding the benchmark of 25 homes that would trigger an automatic expansion, Daughtery called it “a baseline” and said the company “can go beyond the agreement” if it is feasible.

“The county has been very active,” Daugherty said of the county’s efforts to facilitate communications between the company and the Waterford Landing community. “We have had robust and involved conversations. If we keep having those conversations, I can learn about the county’s priority areas and make sure that Comcast is a good community partner.”

The agreement between Comcast and Dinwiddie will remain in effect through January 1, 2028.

Copyright 2017 by Womack Publishing
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