Comcast sets May 8 deadline to resolve conflict with Decatur over fiber networkPhoto by Dave Winer. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Comcast says the city of Decatur is misinforming the public regarding its dispute with the cable company and has set a May 8 deadline to resolve the conflict.
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.
“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.
That franchise agreement expired in 2009. 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. Arnold said on March 18 she received a notification from Comcast that they had applied for a state franchise agreement to replace the original agreement from 1999. On April 2, Andy Macke of Comcast sent Arnold a letter saying the company was no longer obligated to allow the city to use the I-net at no charge. He said the fiber network would be converted to commercial use on April 5 and gave the city three pricing plans.
Arnold said she received no legal basis for Comcast’s decision. The company forwarded Decaturish an April 22 letter Macke sent to Arnold. In that letter, he said he would provide the city with the company’s legal rationale for charging for the service. The company also provided emails going back to 2009 showing that Comcast did try to negotiate a new arrangement with the city.
“Contrary to your characterization of the company as ‘bullying’ the city, Comcast has allowed the City to enjoy free use of the I-Net for 10 years longer than was required, during which time you have been fully aware of Comcast’s desire to convert the network to a commercial arrangement,” the letter says.
He said the company tried to enter into a new deal with the city several times during that 10 year period and said the city resisted those efforts.
“It is disingenuous for you now to suggest that Comcast is not a good partner and is trying to strong-arm the city into an unfair deal,” Macke said.
When asked for a comment about Macke’s letter, Arnold was hopeful the disagreement could be cleared up soon.
“I think both parties are ready for this issue to be resolved,” Arnold said. “We are weighing our options, including the pricing and service levels that Comcast has provided in addition to other service providers.”
Here is Macke’s full letter to Arnold:
April 22, 2019
Via Electronic Mail
Ms. Andrea Arnold City Manager
City of Decatur
509 McDonough Street
Decatur, Georgia 30031
I write to follow up on our conversation last week and in response to your April 8, 2019 letter,
regarding the conversion of the fiber optic or institutional network (I-Net) built by Comcast and provided to the City of Decatur free of charge for nearly two decades.
Under separate cover, I am responding to your request for Comcast’s legal authority to begin charging the City for continued use of the I-Net and for the detailed terms and conditions of Comcast’s proposals to meet the City’s current technology needs. In the meantime, I do believe it is necessary to correct the record, as your public statement at the City Commission meeting on April 15 ignored the ten-year history of our discussions concerning the I-Net.
Contrary to your characterization of the company as “bullying” the City, Comcast has allowed the City to enjoy free use of the I-Net for ten years longer than was required, during which time you have been fully aware of Comcast’s desire to convert the network to a commercial arrangement.
Comcast has, on numerous occasions beginning in 2009 (when our 1999 franchise agreement was set to expire), presented the City with proposals to transition the I-Net to meet the City’s technology and budgetary needs—all while continuing to provide the I-Net to the City at no cost. (See enclosed emails.) Our overtures have been met with resistance from the City at every turn.
If Comcast had been “heavy-handed,” as you have alleged, we could have added the City of Decatur to our state-issued Certificate of Video Franchise Authority in 2008 or 2009, eliminating our I-Net obligation, and insisted that the City begin paying for the I-Net immediately. Comcast could have demanded that the City sign a new contract for the use of the I-Net before removing and reinstalling segments of that network for the City’s use—i.e., during the Decatur Recreation Center renovation in 2011 and the Municipal Court relocation in 2012. But Comcast declined to take such action and instead worked with the City in the spirit of partnership.
While the City of Decatur refused to negotiate in good faith, Comcast successfully reached agreements to convert the Fulton County I-Net in 2011 and the DeKalb County I-Net in 2013.
Most recently, Comcast attempted in 2017 and 2018 to renew discussions with the City of Decatur regarding our franchise agreement and migration of the I-Net, to no avail. In January 2019, the City’s technology consultant informed Comcast that the City had already decided to build its own network and was not interested in a long-term agreement with Comcast. Comcast finally elected to file for state franchise authority in the City of Decatur last month, after you told our representative on February 26 that the City was not interested in a commercial agreement for continued use of the I-Net.
It is disingenuous for you now to suggest that Comcast is not a good partner and is trying to strong-arm the City into an unfair deal.
While the City was rebuffing our efforts to negotiate a reasonable agreement, Comcast continued to demonstrate a commitment to the Decatur community. For example:
– Comcast has connected 3,300 low-income Decatur families to the power of the internet through our Internet Essentials program since 2011;
– Comcast partnered with the City Schools of Decatur through Internet Essentials to provide internet service, computers, and digital literacy training to low-income families;
– Comcast has a long-standing relationship with the Samuel L. Jones Boys & Girls Club, sponsoring digital skills-building and leadership training, providing a number of free laptops to club members, and hosting multiple Comcast Cares Day projects at the club;
– Comcast engaged in a long-time partnership with the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence, including sponsoring the organization’s annual luncheon and hosting Comcast Cares Day projects at the shelter;
– Comcast held a digital literacy rally at Renfroe Middle School, where football legend Tony Dungy gave away free laptops to several students; and
– Comcast just invested $750,000 in a new Xfinity store serving Decatur customers.
In addition to the $4.5 million in franchise fees paid to the City of Decatur, Comcast has invested nearly $1 million in the I-Net and other franchise obligations since 1999. Of this $1 million, the company has recovered far less than the $200,000 allowed under the franchise agreement. Yet the City would have Comcast continue to provide free services that it does not require of any other provider, indefinitely, or for however long it takes the City to build its own fiber network. This is patently unfair and unreasonable.
Comcast has always worked in good faith as a partner with the City, and we want this
cooperation to continue. But the parties’ ten-year discussion regarding the I-Net must come to an end. We would like to bring this matter to conclusion by May 8, 2019. Our team stands ready to meet with the City’s technology team to (1) negotiate the final terms of a commercial agreement with Comcast, or (2) arrange for a smooth and orderly transition to the City’s alternative solution.
Please contact me … at your earliest convenience.
Vice President, External Affairs