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More TV at no cost, for now

Oak Harbor residents who pay for basic cable television only have to click their remote controls to realize they now have nearly twice as many channels to choose from as they did at the beginning of the year.

Comcast introduced the bulked-up lineup, which includes such crowd pleasers as Home and Garden television and the Cartoon Network, last month.

They’re the same shows that cable subscribers in neighboring cities in Skagit County have enjoyed for years.

City officials say the cable giant expanded its offerings in Oak Harbor because of one thing: hardball negotiations over the franchise agreement.

And they say that Oak Harbor residents, many of whom have been dissatisfied with cable offerings in the past, have a chance to weigh in during a public meeting slated for May.

A public meeting is required before city council members sign off on the newly minted franchise agreement. That meeting is set for May 4.

“We’d really love for people to come out to that and give us their opinion,” said Assistant City Attorney Allison Cumberbatch. “It’s not a done deal. If people have something to say, this is their opportunity to say something.”

Cumberbatch detailed for Oak Harbor City Council members Tuesday night the long road the city has traveled in negotiating a franchise agreement with Comcast.

The city hired a telecommunications consultant in August of 2002. The city also conducted a survey via the Internet that gave residents the chance to offer their opinions about local cable television service.

The results were clear, Cumberbatch said. Of 512 responses, just two were positive.

But the city’s greatest leverage came from its power to grant, or deny, Comcast its franchise agreement.

City, Comcast negotiations tough

Even so, the negotiations were hard fought. At one point, both sides walked away.

It was only in the 11th hour, just days before a legal deadline, that Comcast and city officials could come to terms. The two sides went through 10 drafts before settling on a 54-page contract that details everything from planned fiber upgrades to more public access channels.

For local television watchers, some of those changes are already in evidence. Cumberbatch said the city’s drawn-out talks prompted Comcast to offer a broader array of channels. Comcast officials did not return phone calls. But Cumberbatch said the cable company has said in the past it had already planned to begin offering more channels, regardless of negotiations.

High school

shows possible

For Oak Harbor residents, the new franchise agreement promises more public access channels. Currently, the city operates a public access channel that runs taped city council meetings and other public information. That channel, formerly 10, is now channel 21.

Other public access channels are in the works, Cumberbatch said. The new franchise agreement, if approved by the city council, will give local students the chance to air high school-produced programming.

Comcast also agreed to provide a third public access channel, should the first two become filled with programming, Cumberbatch said.

“While it’s a cable franchise with the city, the school district is a part of us,” Cumberbatch said. “It’s really interesting, fascinating things going on at the high school.”

Already, students from the high school’s video class assist in taping city council meetings, Cumberbatch said.

Cumberbatch, who holds an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism, took on the fight with Comcast with gusto.

She moved to Oak Harbor in 2001 from Aberdeen and was surprised to find how few channels were provided as part of basic cable.

“I was very vocal,” she said.

Cumberbatch, who once worked in video production at CNN in Atlanta before heading to law school, holds more than a passing familiarity with the television industry.

Surprisingly, so does Mary Owens, the mayor’s secretary, who once worked as a cable operator.

Owens was able to speak the lingo, Cumberbatch said, and was instrumental in helping question some of the negotiation positions.

“Comcast would say we can’t do something and Mary would say, ‘oh yes you can,’” Cumberbatch said.

The city didn’t get everything on its wish list. Cumberbatch said plans for a fiber optic ring connecting the city and schools fell through.

But the city was able to secure new equipment for its council chambers.

The cable company will be able to recoup those costs by passing on a franchise fee to customers of about 50 cents a month, Cumberbatch said.

Still, there’s no question that local residents now have more TV to choose from.

So far, the rates are lower than for cable subscribers in other cities around Puget Sound. Basic cable in Oak Harbor goes for $36.99, not counting tax and franchise fees. That’s $3 less per month than in other places with a similar number of channels.

However, Cumberbatch said Comcast plans to raise prices by the end of the year.

Sidebar:

TV trouble in some apartments

For most Oak Harbor cable customers, recent changes to the city’s franchise agreement with Comcast are all positive. After all, most people are getting twice the channels they used to and paying the same price, at least until the end of the year.

The one down note, is for people who live in condos or apartments. In some cases, landlords and condominium associations are not signing service agreements with Comcast.

That means those residents aren’t getting the additional channels and their picture may be cutting in and out, said city attorney Allison Cumberbatch.

The reason some people aren’t signing the service agreements boils down to liability.

The contracts limit liability for cable employees who accidentally cut a sewer line, for example.

There’s no guarantee, under the service agreements, that the cable company will pay to repair it.

Some folks have complained to the city about the service agreements. Some have retained attorneys to iron out the problem, city officials say.

This problem does not affect average homeowners because they receive their cable service through cable lines running beneath the public-right-of-way.

That’s not true of those who live in larger living units, where the cable company needs to come on the property to set up switching boxes and other equipment.

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