Fenwick Island Town Council members voted unanimously at their meeting Friday, Jan. 28, to renew the town’s franchise agreement with Comcast cable television company. (Council member Chris Clark was absent.)
The town’s franchise agreement was due to expire in the near future, but what might normally have been considered a foregone conclusion of its renewal became fraught with debate as residents of the town expressed dissatisfaction with the company’s programming selections, particularly as pertained to the lack of Philadelphia Eagles football games.
A committee assembled to discuss the matter had previously recommended to the council that the contract be renewed not for the full 10 years sought by Comcast, but instead for only five years. Committee and council member Martha Keller expressed hope that the shorter renewal period might put pressure on the cable company to concede to the expressed programming wishes when the initial five years expired.
Council President and Mayor Peter Frederick told those in attendance at the Jan. 28 meeting that representatives of Comcast had recently questioned why Fenwick Island residents did not want to renew the contract on the standard 10-year basis.
Frederick noted that federal law left programming decisions — such as the one to offer particular football games in a given area — to the cable company. Further, he said, Comcast itself was at the mercy of NFL programming restrictions in what it was in turn able to offer its customers.
Keller conceded that the issue was “not reason enough not to renew.” She also expressed concern, as did Frederick, that not renewing the franchise agreement could lead to the town being sued by Comcast in an effort to recoup the company’s initial installation costs. Frederick said, “If we don’t renew the contract, they will take us to court, because we don’t have any good reason not to.”
The mayor noted that the agreement is a non-exclusive one and would technically allow any other cable television provider to bring in their own lines to service the town. That possibility, however, has been considered extremely unlikely due to the cost of such an installation, as well as the distance between nearby areas serviced by other cable operators.
“It’s just not economically feasible,” he said.
Also in the town’s favor, Frederick said, was federal law that dictates that any franchise agreement be renegotiated after any change in federal communication laws. Should such changes occur in the next 10 years, he said, the town and Comcast would be compelled to renegotiate their contract regardless of the time period that had passed since it was signed.
Frederick, Keller and council member Harry Haon all recommended the town consider a contract period with a five-year mandatory review. The variations, however, were cause for debate — particularly as to whether they were merely semantic or had real, substantive differences.
In the end, the council members and those assembled at the meeting asked, did it make any difference whether there was any real difference between a 10-year contract with a mandatory performance review at five years, or a renewable five-year contract with a review before renewal?
As discussion concluded, the only possible difference anyone raised was the potential cost and effort of writing up a new five-year contract at the end of the existing one, as might be mandated by an initial five-year period.
Frederick said, “I see no down side to the town, and I would like to get this out of the way.” He also noted — entirely as a separate matter, and not one of quid pro quo, he said — that Comcast had offered the town 25 high-speed Internet connections for the town hall.
After opening the subject to comments from those in the audience — of which there were none — council members voted unanimously to renew the contract with a full 10-year term but with the requirement for a five-year performance review.
Council member Vicki Carmean requested the town look into the possibility of sharing the 25 high-speed Internet connections with the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber of Commerce, and Frederick said he would research the matter.