Vermont — home to about 625,000 people, among them former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — is tangling in federal court with Comcast Corp. over access to cable TV in rural parts of the state and over modernizing its interactive channel guide for public-access channels.
Both sides are girding for a legal fight as the biggest U.S. cable-TV company, which serves 197 of Vermont’s 255 municipalities with cable and internet, faces off against its regulators in the nation’s second-least-populated state — a big escalation in what is essentially a franchise renegotiation.
Comcast claims in a lawsuit filed Aug. 28 that Vermont regulators have placed unreasonable burdens on it that could cost tens of millions of dollars, and that some of that cost could be passed on to cable subscribers.
But Vermont officials say that Comcast’s profits tripled to $63 million in the state after it took over the cable operations of the former Adelphia Communications Corp. in 2006, and that the telecom giant has the money to make improvements to its cable network.
Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director of the CCTV Center for Media and Democracy, which televises the public-access Channel 17 in Burlington, said this week that Comcast wants to keep such channels in “digital Siberia” by leaving them out of its interactive channel guides listing commercial broadcast-TV and cable-TV channels, so that people don’t know about the programs that are being offered.
“You cannot find our programs, you can’t search them, and you can’t record them. You can’t manipulate them like commercial content,” Davitian said.
“This is outrageous,” she added. “They just don’t want to be told what to do by a little state like Vermont.”
The dispute stems from the certificate of public good issued by Vermont regulators in January, which renewed Comcast’s right to operate in the state for 11 years. The renewal followed months of testimony and negotiations between the company and the Vermont Public Utility Commission. (Unlike Pennsylvania, in which individual municipalities negotiate cable-TV franchise agreements, Vermont officials negotiate a broad agreement for providers such as Comcast. In New Jersey, the state similarly negotiated a cable-TV agreement with Verizon.)
Through the now-challenged certificate, Vermont regulators say Comcast must extend its cable lines an additional 550 miles over the 11-year term. Comcast says that the cost, on average, for the extension is about $31,000 a mile, and that extensions should be based on market demand by consumers, not a regulatory mandate.
The certificate-mandated upgrades to its interactive channel guide for public-access channels could immediately cost $4 million, Comcast officials say, and place the company at a competitive disadvantage to satellite-TV providers DirecTV and Dish — both popular in Vermont — that are not subject to such public-access requirements.
Comcast sought to amend the certificate. But the commission rejected that request in late July, prompting the federal lawsuit.
Spokeswoman Kristen Roberts said that Comcast is “disappointed” in the Vermont regulators’ decision, and that these were requirements “not imposed on any other competitor in the state of Vermont and that would cost millions of dollars, place discriminatory burdens on Comcast and its customers, and arbitrarily increase their costs for cable service.”