Hall Monitor 

On Demand: Dickish Behavior

COMCAST WON'T LIKE me saying this. But I'm saying it anyway, because it's true. Comcast is being a total dick right now.

For anyone who's ever endured an unhelpful service call with the cable giant, that's hardly a surprise. But this time, the dickishness could wind up costing local governments (and ultimately us, as taxpayers) millions of dollars.

Comcast is currently in talks with Portland and several nearby cities, working to renew the exclusive "franchise" agreement that gives it exclusive rights to peddle TV, phone, and internet service around these parts. But the current decade-plus contract is set to expire on December 31, and talks have not been going well. That's why, last week, Portland became the latest agency to agree to an extension until June.

The problem? Some $3 million-plus that Comcast forks over every year—money that finances cable-access TV, along with fast and reliable broadband networks in government buildings, schools, and libraries.

Without that cash, cities might have to stop televising council meetings. A revolutionary video chat service for domestic violence victims at Portland's Gateway Center could be in danger. And officials would have to buy slower, pricier service on the private market, from providers like, um, Comcast.

Those millions were a hard-fought prize the last time the cable franchise was up for discussion, in the 1990s—giving us perhaps the nation's best deal with the Evil Empire, and separate from the $7 million in regular franchise fees that Comcast pays. But now, government negotiators say, Philadelphia-based Comcast is complaining about the economy's toll on its profits. Never mind that its rates unfailingly rise (10 percent last year, city officials say), and that it had enough money to buy NBC.

When I called Comcast's local spokeswoman, Theressa Davis, she seemed irked when I kept asking why Comcast deserves to shed the payment.

"It's a competitive marketplace," she told me. "I'm not going to speak specifically to different parts of the negotiation."

But losing that extra money could mean "teachers and librarians getting laid off," David Olson, Portland's cable manager, told me after the city agreed to the extension last week.

Olson said the money doesn't even come from Comcast's bottom line. It passes the cost onto customers. So does that mean that rates might actually dip?

"I have several Willamette River bridges to sell you," says Olson. All that will happen is that money that helps pay for [local services] will never be seen in this county again. And it will instead go to Philadelphia for public benefit projects like buying NBC."

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