Manassas Journal Messenger | County approves agreement with Comcast Cable

Comcast Cable got its 15-year operating agreement with Prince William approved Tuesday, but not before county officials complained about rising rates and suggested it drop expensive channels like ESPN.

“People would like to keep their rates from going up and up,” but the yearly increases outpace inflation, said Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs, R-Occoquan. Why can’t Comcast chop out channels, she asked, like ESPN, which recently announced it was raising its monthly subscriber fee from $1 to $1.20? That would force the Disney-owned sports channel to lower its expenses if all of Comcast boycotted, she said.

“Unfortunately, my competition would not do that and then I’d be out of business soon,” said Comcast general manager Troy Fitzhugh. Griggs said Comcast has no competition, and really there is none in Northern Virginia, but Fitzhugh said satellite television providers are bona fide competitors with approximately 18 percent market penetration in Prince William.

Cable regulation is controlled by federal laws, which made the discussion on programming by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors more a search for answers rather than an attempt to change the agreement. The agreement does not preclude another cable company coming into the county and building a new cable system.

The major issue for several supervisors: Eastern Prince William does not have the option of a limited basic package for under $20 like western areas, instead their lowest option is regular basic for $41.

Eight percent of western county customers have limited basic cable, Fitzhugh said.

“We need to go back to our constituents on the eastern end and tell them why they can’t have it,” said Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan, R-Dumfries. Fitzhugh answered it would add more complexity, security expenses and administrative costs for a small lineup that most customers are not satisfied with. Customers want a stripped-down lineup of a few broadcast stations and their favorite satellite channels, but federal regulations control the makeup of limited basic to include stations like public access, he said.

Fitzhugh said channels are clustered by number based on package, and a physical device at the home is used to limit the lineup, a device that adds to maintenance costs because it reduces reliability, he said. Homes also have to be checked frequently to prevent abuse, he said.

Supervisor Hilda M. Barg, D-Woodbridge, asked Fitzhugh if he could put a simple statement in customer bills explaining why they cannot get the limited basic option. He said the issues aren’t simple and not all customers are asking for it, to which Barg said it shouldn’t be that much trouble considering he is getting a 15-year agreement.

County Attorney Sharon Pandak later pointed out that the length of the agreement is necessary to give Comcast long-term assurances of business in return for rebuilding the eastern county cable system within seven years and wiring public buildings with an “I-network.”

Comcast will also launch local channels for government, public schools and higher education.

Fitzhugh pointed out benefits to western county subscribers are recent — the rebuild of the western county cable system was completed last year, and before that it consistently had less service than the eastern system. West-end subscribers pay more for their extra channels, he said.

Many of the supervisors’ complaints and those they cited from constituents followed the same theme of a Senate hearing last week where cable executives were asked if they could allow customers to chose programming a la carte.

County supervisors passed the agreement with the measure to direct board chairman Sean T. Connaughton, R-at-large, to contact the congressional delegation and ask for help on controlling costs and programming.

The federal regulations could get more complicated if power and phone companies develop technology that allows them to transmit cable channels over their lines, said Supervisor John D. Jenkins, D-Neabsco.

County attorney Robert Dickerson said the county’s goal would be to treat power and electric companies the same as Comcast, if the federal law allows.

Staff writer Chris Newman can be reached at (703) 878-8062.

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