Two years after the expiration of Charles County’s cable TV franchise agreement with Comcast, the county appears to have forged a new agreement that promises improved customer service and extended coverage to outlying areas.
“We’re pleased to report that after some hard-fought negotiations with Comcast, we are prepared to present to you for your consideration the franchise agreements that we’ve negotiated with Comcast,” attorney Daniel Cohen told the board of county commissioners during a brief public hearing Tuesday evening.
Cohen’s law firm, the Pittsburgh-based Cohen Law Group, worked with CBG Communications Inc. of Philadelphia and county staff including county IT chief Evelyn Jacobson and Deputy County Administrator Deborah Hall to negotiate the agreement.
The new franchise agreement, which has a 10-year term, requires Comcast to extend service to parts of the county that have a density of at least 20 homes per mile. Comcast has agreed to extend the system without charge to areas with a lower density of 15 homes per mile if all the residents agree to become Comcast subscribers.
In a separate agreement, Comcast has also agreed to provide cable services to 135 homes in Newburg and the Maxwell Hall area east of Hughesville, even though both of those areas fall below the set density threshold. The agreement stipulates that this work would be completed within six months of receiving the necessary easements, permits and licenses from the county.
The previous 15-year franchise agreement stipulated that cable service would not be extended to areas with a residential density of less than 20 homes per mile unless subscribers were willing to bear part of the installation costs.
The new agreement also provides the county with a standalone 15-year unbreakable contract for rights to the institutional network, or I-Net, that connects 90 county buildings, schools and public libraries. The franchise agreement also maintains the county’s four TV channels — the County Government Channel, the School District Channel, College of Southern Maryland Channel and the Public Access Channel.
Under the new agreement, Comcast will continue providing free cable TV service to 120 county buildings, schools and libraries, but there is now an option to add up to 20 more facilities at the county’s discretion.
The new agreement also spells out customer service standards for a wide range of commonly reported issues including telephone answering response times, service call standards, customer complaints and credit for service interruptions, and also provides options for redress.
Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) expressed disappointment that the new franchise agreement did not include more coverage of the rural areas in the western part of the county that are currently not served by either Comcast or Verizon.
“I do understand Comcast is in the business to make money, I got that,” Coates said. “But I am concerned about your profit margin, not taking care of those in a more rural area like the Nanjemoy area.”
Adeyinka Ogunlegan, a manager of government and regulatory affairs at Comcast who was involved in the franchise agreement negotiations, told Coates that although she couldn’t go into detail about specific areas, the company “looked consistently at areas of growth in the county.”
“As the county grows, we are also looking to grow and expand our network,” Ogunlegan said. “But as you said, there is a return on investment calculation that is part of our process.”
In addition to Newburg and Maxwell Hall, Ogunlegan said, “we will continue to work with the county to identify other areas where build-out is possible.”
Only three county residents signed up to speak during the public hearing.
Michael Runfola of La Plata encouraged the commissioners to limit future franchise agreements to no more than five years and allow residents to purchase their own analog-to-digital signal converters instead of being required to rent them from Comcast. Michael Lucchesi of Waldorf discussed his continued frustration with what he described as the poor condition of Comcast’s above-ground curbside connection boxes in Pinefield.
Catherine Frick of Charlotte Hall expressed her frustration with not being able to get cable or internet service since moving to the area in 1992, which has been exacerbated by the high cost of alternatives such as hotspots and satellite dishes.
“I’m not looking forward to another 10 years of not having internet or cable TV,” Frick said, pointing out that without a Comcast subscription she does not have access to the information provided by the county via its four public access channels.
“We pay our taxes too. We should have access to all of that information, and we do not,” Frick said.
“I hope that there will be more consideration made for the areas of the county that are not wired now that should be wired,” Frick added. “Because until they are wired, we are not anything but second-class citizens.”
The commissioners will vote on whether to approve the franchise agreement on June 18. If approved, the agreement will take affect July 1.