Public adds two cents on Comcast renewal

If approved, the contract would last at least 10 years

By Jennifer micale

SOUTH RIVER — Will the borough tune in with Comcast Cablevision of New Jersey for the next 10 years?

This is the question borough officials will be pondering as they enter into the final stages of the company’s franchise renewal.

On March 9, the Borough Council held a public hearing on the renewal, giving residents the opportunity to air their complaints and concerns. According to Comcast’s regional manager Peter Lyden III, the company began the renewal process in July 1997, filing an application with the borough last December.

The franchise agreement is non-exclusive, allowing other cable companies to enter the coverage area and begin laying cables at any time during the agreement.

"It’s been happening more and more," Lyden noted.

According to Lyden, the renewal is essentially a right of way, allowing the provider to lay cable beneath the borough’s streets. During the federally mandated process, municipalities are not permitted to go out to bid or consider rates in their decision. Instead, the governing body must evaluate the provider using four criteria: compliance with the terms of previous franchise agreements, service quality, the actual ability to provide service and whether they can meet community needs.

"If we meet those four points, we can’t be refused a renewal," Lyden explained. "If we failed on any of them, we can be cut out completely."

However, Comcast representatives believe that failure is not an option, and that their company meets the requirements with flying colors. According to Lyden, the company is the No. 1 cable operator in New Jersey and the third in the nation, with a total of 8.5 million households. He noted the company’s guarantee of on-time and same-day service and upgraded system, which includes digital cable and Internet services.

"We were one of the first to upgrade our system and launch digital," said regional vice president Buck Dopp. "The customers will separate companies of the future from companies of the ’90s."

Additionally, the company had paid its franchise fees to the borough promptly, including $31,000 this year, Lyden said. The franchise fee is paid in lieu of any costs from cables beneath borough streets.

The company uses primarily hybrid fiber-coaxial cable, with the backbone of the system composed of fiber optics. Coaxial cable is used to connect the fiber optic node to a home, Lyden explained. He noted that the system has eliminated much of the electronics, where breakdowns commonly occur.

Residents also had few complaints regarding the service, said Arthur Londensky, who serves on the Cable Advisory Board and as the station manager for TV 35. In a mailing that the board sent to residents on the issue, the majority of negative comments dealt with programming and fees, which cannot be considered during the negotiation process. Otherwise, the board received two complaints, indicating that residents are generally satisfied with Comcast’s service and product, he said.

"We still have the advantage of having a local billing office," Londensky said. "You can actually walk in and get some service and that’s a plus."

At the hearing, residents did bring up some problems, such as cables discarded in the roadway and difficulty reaching service personnel via telephone. However, Dopp maintained that the company answered 155,000 calls within the month of February alone, with 80 percent answered in the first 30 seconds. The 24-hour call-center is manned by 184 staff members, each of which goes through an eight-week training session.

Residents also suggested that the borough’s pole rental fee come into play during the negotiation process. Unlike many municipalities, South River owns its own utility poles, charging companies for their use.

During the negotiation process, Londensky would also like both borough and Comcast officials to consider TV 35. While many municipalities are only considering such service, the borough has been able to provide it for the past 12 years, covering council meetings and sports events. However, the all-volunteer staff does experience financial limitations.

"Our cost of operating continues to spiral," Londensky noted. At present, the station needs to replace its complete character generation system, a $7,000 cost out of their $10,000 budget, he said.

Comcast representatives stressed that the company has strong support for public access channels, a commodity that competitors, such as satellite television, cannot supply.

"It’s an asset to us," said Lyden. "The public access channel is an open forum for everybody."

In addition to cable service, borough officials may also consider going online. While Comcast provides one free hook-up to both schools and libraries, it does not have the same provision for Borough Hall, although it does offer a 25 percent discount to municipalities.

If Comcast were to install the system, it would require a minimum of four work stations, with Comcast setting up the Local Area Network. The service would cost $200 per month, five times the rate for residential Internet users.

"This is a high-speed solution. You wouldn’t need it for just e-mail," Lyden explained. "It costs more to buy a Ferrari than it does to buy a Ford."

"Business users tend to use up a lot more of the bandwidth," Councilman Tele Kourkourdelis noted.

Because the federal process does not allow rates and programming to be a part of the negotiations, the instrumental factor in a franchise renewal is the length of the term, Dopp explained. The borough’s previous contract lasted 10 years and included an upgrade commitment.

Resident Dan Alexander, on the other hand, counseled borough officials to accept the shortest contract possible, with Comcast offering benefits for any extension. However, Comcast officials were clear on the shortest length they would accept.

"That’s still the lowest we will accept," Lyden said of the decade-long contract, adding that anything less would force the provider to go to the state. As of last year, the median contract length in the state is 12 years, considered reasonable by state officials, he said. Any denial of the application must stem from a legal failure to meet the four points, he said.