Towns joining forces over cable TV contracts

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NAPLES — A group of towns is banding together to renegotiate their cable television contracts with Charter Communications after the company was “not responsive to municipalities when (they) had complaints and issues.”

“As communities grow, the cable companies have not been following through on their end of the deal as far as extending lines of service into the community,” said Naples Town Manager John Hawley. “The cable companies were not responsive to municipalities when we had complaints and issues. There is nobody helping us enforce those contracts.”

Another issue is franchise fees, which are collected from customers and paid to the municipality quarterly in exchange for the cable company bringing cable to the community. These municipalities want to negotiate a higher percentage of fees. 

Contracts between a town and cable company are often 10 years long, and even when they expire, Hawley said, a municipality can continue to operate under an expired contract. 

“They remain between the municipality and cable company until such time as one or the other wants to renegotiate the contract. Unless something significant changes, communities aren’t motivated to renegotiate those contracts,” he explained. 

The motivation has now come in the form of new state legistation aimed at enforcing the contracts. 

The bill, entitled “An act to ensure non-discriminatory treatment of public, educational and governmental access channels by the cable operator,” is currently at the Office of the Revisor as LR130.

It was created by the Community Television Association of Maine and addresses a number of issues, including line extensions, automatic franchise renewals and the numeric sequence of public, educational and governmental channels. 

Hawley recently began gathering interested municipalities, which total about 13 and include Casco, Naples, Raymond, Bridgton and New Gloucester. Greater  Portland Council of Governments also joined the effort to help facilitate the negotation. 

The group met in January with contract negotiator Mike Edgecomb of James W. Sewall Company. Edgecomb has over 20 years of experience negotiating cable television franchises and will represent the towns in their negotiation with Charter.

Each town must budget for the cost of the consultant, which is being split among the municipalities. After each town has had its budget approved, the group can hire Edgecomb and begin negotiating with Charter. 

Hawley anticipates that town budgets will be finalized by July 1, after which the negotiation can begin. He hopes that new contracts can be finalized within a year.

Banding together as a larger group will “be more effective in negotiating deals for all the communities that are involved,” said Tony Plante, director of Municipal Collaboration at GPCOG. “By combining the subscribers and going to the cable company with a single voice, hopefully we’ll get them to pay more attention to what communities are looking for.”

The goal, Plante explained, is to “make sure communities are getting the kind of service they expect.” 

Jane Vaughan can be reached at 780-9103 or at jvaughan@keepmecurrent.com.