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Comcast, Hillsboro at odds over franchise renewal

With negotiations over extending Comcast’s franchise agreement at a standstill, a representative of the cable service provider — which serves the city of Hillsboro — is expressing concern.

At the Jan. 7 Hillsboro City Council meeting, Tim Goodman, Comcast’s government affairs manager, warned councilors of the potential consequences of allowing the existing franchise agreement to lapse. That contract expires Jan. 31.

Negotiations for cable service providers in Washington County are handled through the Metropolitan Area Communications Commission (MACC), which was formed in April 1980 to “provide a common means for area local governments to jointly franchise for cable television services.”

In addition to Hillsboro, jurisdictions covered by MACC include Banks, Beaverton, Cornelius and Forest Grove. In all, MACC works on behalf of 14 cities in Washington County, as well as Washington County itself, in cable renewal negotiations. Whatever deal is reached will affect all the communities served by MACC.

“It’s for 15 jurisdictions; it’s one big franchise,” said Fred Christ, policy and regulatory affairs manager for MACC.

Goodman claimed MACC negotiators were preventing a new agreement from being finalized by creating additional regulatory conditions.

“That’s not a realistic way to negotiate,” Goodman said. “Franchise renewals require an equal give-and-take from both parties.”

Goodman said the approach MACC is taking is unnecessarily adversarial. According to Goodman, MACC negotiators have insisted on starting a “formal” contract renewal process that would involve sending out a request for proposals and documenting expressed community needs.

“Going to the formal process (for a renewal) is extremely rare in the cable industry. MACC’s insistence to start the formal process is a drastic and unnecessary step,” said Goodman. “We have been a good corporate partner and want to be treated as a partner rather than an adversary. We are being subjected to excessive demands and MACC is being overly aggressive and not acting in citizens’ best interests.”

Christ said he didn’t agree with Goodman’s characterization of the status of the negotiations.

“We have a difference of opinion on that,” he said.

Christ said he wasn’t sure how to characterize the stalemate between MACC and Comcast.

“The industry and the cable company itself want things we’re not used to granting, and things we want are too far for them to go,” he explained.

However, Christ added he was not worried about it getting to the point where lawyers would get involved.

“In the history of cable renewals, only two have ever gone [for] a final determination from a judge, and there have been thousands and thousands of renewals,” said Christ.

During the council meeting, Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey said he was optimistic the cable agreement can be renegotiated without going through the formal application process.

“I can assure you our conversation (with MACC) was encouraging. It’s our desire as well as yours to resolve this,” Willey told Goodman.

Since that time, however, no progress has been reported.

“The short answer is ‘no,’” said Christ. “We’re currently in the process of getting an extension through the end of the year.”

At this point, Christ said, negotiations are focused on an extension to get to the next step of the renewal process. A long-term deal will be hammered out later.

“We’re coming up on the end of a 15-year stretch. It’s been a long time since we renewed with Comcast, and we’ve been a full year into negotiations,” said Christ. “There are quite a few issues still up in the air. There is no one keystone issue holding us up.”

Topics currently being negotiated include customer service issues, service availability, and questions about public, educational and government channels.

Christ said there is no reason for current Comcast subscribers to be alarmed about the contract running out at the end of the month.

“Essentially, nothing happens that anyone will notice,” Christ said. “The agreement will be extended through the end of the year for each jurisdiction, and there will be no change in service or rates. It’s just status quo.”

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