Springs and Comcast look at a new 10-year agreement 

click to enlarge Comcast's local operation serves 70,400 subscribers. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Comcast's local operation serves 70,400 subscribers.

When Nelson Marquez's house was destroyed in the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, he told Comcast he couldn't return the cable equipment because it had burned. Five months later, he was still being billed for using the equipment. When Comcast finally remitted some money to Marquez that December, it wasn't enough, according to city franchise records.

Mary Hills told the city in 2011 that she'd lose her Comcast cable signal "every time it rains," and though the company offered her a credit, records show, "she found that her bill had increased."

After two years of "connectivity issues" with Comcast's TV, Internet and phone service, David Reynolds finally complained to the city in 2012. Comcast sent technicians to install new equipment, but he still had problems, and Comcast told the city that "a perfect solution may not exist because of the large square footage" of Reynolds' home.

Those are among the roughly 200 formal complaints or requests the city's received about Comcast since 2010. Nine customers became so frustrated they turned to KKTV's "Call for Action" consumer line.

But given that Comcast serves about 70,400 Colorado Springs subscribers, 200 complaints may look like relatively few. And those types of complaints aren't likely to be addressed in the upcoming 10-year renewal franchise agreement, anyway. Nor will Comcast's charges: Federal law — based on the premise that competition is good for consumers — prevents local governments from regulating rates.

That said, Councilor Don Knight hopes the city can draft some kind of performance standards for a franchisee.

The largest media company in the world, according to Forbes.com, Comcast is worth nearly $150 billion, has 23 million cable customers, and employs 139,000 people, about 700 of those in Colorado Springs. Comcast is headquartered in Philadelphia, where it owns the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team.

One of its subsidiaries manages "ticketing and fan engagement" for Colorado College, the Air Force Academy, the National Western Stock Show, Pikes Peak Center, Broadmoor World Arena, the Pueblo Convention Center and hundreds more, according to Comcast Spectacor's website. The parent company serves 89 percent of Colorado Springs' cable customers, with CenturyLink at 10 percent and Falcon Broadband at 1 percent.

Comcast became the city's franchisee in 2006 when its predecessor, Adelphia Communications Corp., went bankrupt. The purpose of the 15-year franchise agreement it inherited, which is to be renewed in November for 10 years, is to compensate the city for use of public rights-of-way to lay cable.

Colorado Springs' franchise rate of $1.53 per subscriber per month is among the lowest in the state. That fee generates roughly $1 million a year and funds the city's Channel 18 public television station. While some councilors have talked of increasing that rate, Knight doesn't want to impose what could be viewed as "a hidden tax" on residents.

As for rates overall, Comcast spokeswoman Cindy Parsons says Comcast has "worked very hard to hold down price adjustments." But Walter Lawson, a resident who's spoken to Council several times on the matter in recent meetings, points out that Comcast's rates are higher than those in other cities and countries. By his calculations, they drain millions of dollars a year from local residents.

"The situation today is so unjust it just screams for correction," he says in an interview, adding the city should have sought a different company during the three-year run-up to the franchise renewal. "With Comcast," he adds, "the sky's the limit. The more customers they get, the charges keep going up ... because they've bought the law."

Comcast has been in trouble with regulators for not sufficiently promoting availability of stand-alone broadband service, and with labor unions for unfair labor practices. But it spent $17 million on federal lobbying efforts last year, eighth-most of any group, right behind the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, according to opensecrets.org. This year, it's spent $8.5 million, placing it 13th-highest. The company spent another $5 million on 2014 congressional campaign contributions.

Closer to home, Comcast has given $74,200 in Colorado politics since Jan. 1, 2014, donating to campaigns of state legislators Lois Landgraf, Gordon Klingenschmitt, Janak Joshi, Paul Lundeen, Dan Nordberg and Terri Carver, campaign finance reports show.

In Colorado Springs politics, Comcast is less generous. In 2013, it donated $500 to Tim Leigh's campaign in District 1 (he lost to Knight), and $2,000 to Angela Dougan's campaign in District 2 (she lost to Joel Miller, who resigned and was replaced by Larry Bagley).

Having chosen the wrong District 1 candidate, Comcast officials showed up in Knight's office after the election offering to cover any remaining campaign expenses, Knight says. He said no.

The only sitting city elected official who's received Comcast campaign money is Mayor John Suthers, whose campaign received $1,000 in February. Suthers will oversee the Comcast franchise and sign the contract.

Knight says while Council controls very little of the 68-page franchise agreement, it might be able to set customer service standards. But he adds that so far, the City Attorney's Office has failed to respond to repeated Council requests for information on this portion of the agreement. "It puzzles me what the holdup is," Knight says. The legal office didn't respond to a request for comment.

Such standards could include forcing Comcast to offer a "basic package at a cheaper rate" than the 110-channel option, Knight says. Council also is interested in requiring Comcast to serve an entire neighborhood rather than, say, one side of a street.

Council also wants to know about Comcast's long-range plan for serving the entire city, Knight says, adding, "We can at least ask the question: What is your plan?"

But while the draft agreement allows the city to evaluate Comcast's performance, it doesn't allow the city to change the franchise as a result. The city could buy the Comcast system and run it itself, if the two could agree on a price, but that's highly unlikely.

Of course, while the proposed agreement is to span 10 years, Knight notes that cable could be obsolete before that due to growing use of streaming and wireless services.

"All three [cable providers locally]," Knight notes, "are losing out to Dish [Network], Amazon Prime and Google Plus."

Says Comcast's Parsons, "We are working extremely hard to transform the customer experience company-wide — it is our top priority. ... We are investing in infrastructure, staffing up, simplifying our bills and packages and improving employee training and tools just to name a few."

From 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 10, Council will hold a public hearing on the renewal at City Hall, 107 N. Nevada Ave. Whether other hearings are held depends on the public's interest, Knight says.

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