Comcast staying put, CenturyLink coming in

Local cable commission talks failed Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger

Comcast customers might sense a lack of change in the air: the company’s plans to pull out of the Twin Cities market have been scuttled following its abandonment of a planned merger with Time Warner Cable.

The potential merger and its after-effects—a successor company called Greatland Connections and lots of open questions for customers—were factors in the North Suburban Communications Commission’s recent negotiations with Comcast over a new franchise agreement, or service contract.

NSCC is made up of Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Lauderdale, Little Canada, Mounds View, New Brighton, North Oaks, Roseville and St. Anthony.

The Comcast franchise for NSCC was eventually extended, keeping the current contract in place through 2016, along with the contract’s relatively generous funding of cable access television.

The commission also gave its blessings to Comcast to transfer the contract to Greatland, a move that Comcast intended to lower its post-merger national market share and curry favor with the Federal Communications Commission.

Now, however, Greatland Connections is no more, and Comcast remains.

Switching channels

“The general assessment is that it’s probably a good thing, overall,” said Cor Wilson, executive director of CTV, NSCC’s sister organization, adding that she’d received a letter from Comcast April 28 that said the merger was officially off.

Wilson said there were many unknowns about Greatland Connections, such as their sources of funding and just how they were going to manage their cable franchises.

If customers are missing out on anything because Comcast is staying in the Twin Cities, Wilson said, it’s the possibility of doing business with a smaller cable company with local oversight.

“At least with Greatland we would know who was making decisions,” she said.

Looking forward, Wilson hopes Comcast will work on some improvements at home, for instance, by dealing with what she terms the company’s weekly “horror stories” that show up in the news regarding customer service.

“My hope is that they’ll really take some time to fix the customer service problems that they’ve got,” she said.

NSCC and Comcast will renegotiate their franchise agreement beginning in earnest next year, and Wilson said she hopes Comcast can be “less confrontational’ than in the past.

Coverage and competition

In other franchise dealings, CenturyLink and NSCC are currently hashing out a franchise proposal, with aims at bringing a cable competitor into the market.

CenturyLink is working to bring service to cities around the metro—Minneapolis is reportedly close to approving a five-year deal—that would initially provide service to 15 percent of the city.

CenturyLink has said repeatedly that it would start in the NSCC area with 30 percent coverage. Wilson said the lower figure for Minneapolis surprised her, though she said the company is likely setting expectations low.

She said NSCC and the city of Minneapolis work with the same franchise lawyer, and that the CenturyLink deal for NSCC, due back at the beginning of June, would likely be similar.

Commission cities would individually vote on entering into a franchise agreement with CenturyLink shortly thereafter.

“Hopefully the company will be ready to start offering service in June/July,” Wilson said.

­—Mike Munzenrider

Public supports cable options

NSCC Chair Gina Bauman, the commissioner from New Brighton, was unequivocal in her support of working out a franchise with CenturyLink when the commission voted to do so April 16. She said many cable customers in her area had become “disenfranchised” with their current cable option.

The commission held a public hearing on the franchise question March 5, and nearly all public comments were in support of a CenturyLink franchise.

Many cited the benefits of competition, a lack of other options and gripes about Comcast customer service—while one commenter raised concerns about CenturyLink’s customer service as well, albeit on its phone service side.

Competition in cable markets is said to lower prices and improve customer service.

Said Bauman, “I think for any city, they’re excited for something new to look at.”


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