Company wants 'level playing field' in franchise agreement as cities mull new pact

Comcast is crying foul about a proposed Verizon Northwest Inc. cable television franchise.

The company that provides cable television to most of Washington County and 13 surrounding cities asked the Metropolitan Area Cable Commission two weeks ago to consider giving it the same deal that Verizon sought from the group Feb. 8.

The company warned commissioners against providing 'an unfair advantage' to Verizon in its proposed franchise agreement that still must be approved by the cities and Washington County commissioners.

In a Feb. 12 letter to the commission, Sanford Inouye, Comcast Cable government affairs director in Beaverton, wrote that his company wanted the proposed Verizon Northwest franchise to be held to the same standard as the 15-year pact granted in 1999 to Comcast's predecessors, TCI and AT and T.

Comcast has operated the local franchise since 2003.

Inouye wrote that the commission should 'adhere to the level playing field obligation under our current franchise. In order to ensure that Verizon is not given an unfair competitive advantage, our franchise requirements and obligations should be modified to be reasonably comparable to those of the proposed Verizon franchise.'

MACC officials, however, are not very sympathetic. They say that Comcast can submit a new franchise proposal if it wants something different than the current pact. The company so far has not sought a new franchise agreement.

Short of that, MACC is not likely to change either the Comcast franchise agreement or alter Verizon's proposal based on Comcast's recent concerns.

'They have an existing contract with our jurisdictions with obligations that they have to meet,' said Fred Christ, MACC's policy and regulatory affairs manager. 'If they want to change things, they have to have a good reason for it.

'We would consider any legitimate concerns. But, that being said, you have to take the entire franchise and compare it with the entire franchise, which is what we've been working on for a year with dozens of attorneys.'

Inouye did not return a telephone call seeking comment on his letter.

Significant differences

Members of the cable commission approved in early February a proposal allowing Verizon Northwest to provide cable television service to MACC's jurisdictions. The company expects to extend television service into Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin, King City and several other parts of Washington County.

If all 11 cities represented by the communications commission approve the agreement, it would be the first time in Oregon that two major telecommunications companies competed head-to-head for cable TV customers.

In his letter, Inouye said a brief review of Verizon's proposal could have 'some significant differences regarding obligations and requirements' from Comcast's franchise agreement.

Inouye cited as examples requirements that Comcast provide cable service to almost all parts of the county, while Verizon's proposal had no such requirement. He also said the agreement could let Verizon 'cherry pick' profitable areas to serve, while not expanding in other less-affluent areas.

Inouye also said Verizon's proposal allowed it to terminate the franchise after four years, something not available to Comcast.

Comcast also complained that it was required to pay $800,000 as part of its franchise agreement, but Verizon could be required to pay only about $149,600 in four years under its proposal.

Even customer service responses would be different under the two franchise agreements, Inouye wrote. Comcast has been required to provide a customer service center in the region and to respond quickly to customer concerns.

Verizon's proposal, however, might not hold it to the same requirements, Inouye wrote.

'Reasonably comparable'

In a response released Monday, MACC Administrator Bruce Crest wrote that the commission 'considers the proposed Verizon franchise to be 'reasonably comparable' as all of its material terms to the Comcast franchise.'

Crest also refuted many of Inouye's claims, saying the Verizon proposal was developed under the same scrutiny as the Comcast franchise. He said the commission disagreed with Comcast's examples of inequities in the proposal and its franchise.

Crest and MACC expect Comcast to seek changes to its franchise agreement, partly in response to the Verizon proposal.

'MACC cannot act on such a request unless it is formally proposed to the commission,' Crest wrote. 'Until the Verizon franchise becomes effective, Comcast's suggestions are premature at best.'

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