City of Decatur in a dispute with Comcast over Decatur’s fiber networkPhoto by Dave Winer. Source: Wikimedia Commons
During the April 15 City Commission meeting ,City Manager Andrea Arnold revealed that the city currently has a dispute with Comcast that could force the city to pay the cable company almost $400,000.
A representative from the company said Comcast would like to find a way to work with the city. Arnold accused the company of strong arming the city into using its services and said the city intends to construct its own fiber network.
“The heavy-handed approach taken by Comcast grossly violates the way the city operates,” Arnold said. “Instead of working towards a creative solution to satisfy both parties, Comcast is bullying the city into making a hasty, uninformed decision literally at the expense of taxpayers for the use of a fiber network that many of these taxpayers already paid into almost 20 years ago.”
In 1998 and 1999 the city entered into an agreement with MediaOne, which later became Comcast, to regulate how the company uses the city’s rights of way, Arnold said. As part of the agreement, the company agreed to construct a fiber network, called an Institutional Network (I-Net), connecting all the city’s buildings.
“The agreement also allowed the cable company to pass along up to $200,000 of the I-net construction costs to Decatur subscribers,” Arnold said. “Subscribers saw this itemized on their bills at 25 cents per month. Twenty years ago, Decatur residents paid for part of the fiber network that is at the center of this dispute today. In 2000, the fiber network was installed between most city buildings and this is the dedicated fiber backbone upon which the city has operated for the past 19 years. City operations on this network include critical public safety applications, finance and accounting software, human resources and payroll applications, to name a few.”
In October 2018, the city issued a request for qualifications to build a new fiber network. Comcast was one of the companies that submitted a proposal in response, but the company didn’t meet all of the criteria and wasn’t selected.
The company received notice of the city’s decision on Nov. 29, 2018. Arnold said that on Dec. 20, 2018, a Comcast official emailed then City Manager Peggy Merriss to tell her that the company planned to decommission the city’s fiber network in January 2019. Merriss directed the company to talk to Arnold because Merriss was planning to retire. Arnold said the company never contacted her.
“On March 18, 2019 I received notification from Comcast that they had applied for a state franchise which essentially replaces the franchise agreement from 1999,” Arnold said. “On April 2, 2019, I received a letter from Andy Macke of Comcast stating that Comcast was no longer obligated to provide the city use of the I-net at no charge. He stated, in the April 2 letter, that Comcast intended to convert the city’s I-net to a ‘commercial arrangement effective April 5.’ Provided with this notice was a pricing proposal and demand that the city select from three pricing alternatives by April 15, 2019. The month-to-month pricing works out to almost $370,000 per year. I responded to Andy Macke on April 8 asking for additional information and the legal basis for his demands. I have yet to receive a reply to my questions.”
During the meeting, Macke said around 2008 the state Legislature made a change to the franchising rules
“It laid out an alternative to a local franchising process,” he said. “That alternative made it clear that the company operating under a state-issued franchise had no obligations beyond the natural expiration of a current franchise somebody may be operating under.”
He said the franchise agreement expired in 2009 and Comcast and the city were unable to come to an agreement on how to continue the service.
“Certainly our interest is to continue in a relationship with the city,” Macke said.
Arnold told City Commissioners that at their next meeting she will be making a recommendation for an agreement to construct a new fiber network.
“I anticipate that this new network will be complete by June 2020,” Arnold said. “If Comcast continues to insist that it must no longer provide the I-net to the City at no charge, then Comcast will be asking for close to $400,000 until the network is complete. I respectfully request that Comcast act professionally, like a true community partner, and end its push to decommission the City’s fiber network until the new network is operational in 2020.”