MI: Comcast apologizes in channel dispute

Posted on January 30, 2008 - 10:55am.

from: Detroit Free Press

Comcast apologizes in channel dispute
Agreement sought on public-access switch

January 30, 2008



WASHINGTON -- A top Comcast executive apologized Tuesday to officials in Dearborn and other communities for pushing plans to move public-access cable channels, which would make them less available to up to 450,000 customers.

David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, said his company was in talks with officials from Dearborn and other communities to resolve the dispute over public, educational and governmental channels.

"In retrospect, we failed to communicate adequately our goals and to work cooperatively with our local partners to produce a win for everyone," Cohen said. "This is not the way we want to do business ... and I want to apologize for that."

Dearborn and Meridian Township, near Lansing, filed suit Jan. 11 in U.S. District Court in Detroit over Comcast's plans to switch public-access channels from analog to digital transmission and move them to the 900-level on the program grid.

The suit contends the move would force subscribers with analog televisions to either buy digital or cable-ready televisions or pay Comcast for a converter box needed to obtain the digital stations. The company had offered to provide customers a free converter box for one year, after which subscribers would have to pay $4.20 a month for the device.

U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts ruled in favor of the communities Jan. 14, temporarily blocking Comcast from the switch. Earlier that day, Macomb County Circuit Judge David Viviano issued a similar order in response to a lawsuit filed by the City of Warren, but that case is being folded into the federal matter.

Cohen and Gail Torreano, president of AT&T Michigan, said at a Tuesday hearing of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee that their companies were committed to offering public-access stations to the widest possible range of customers. But both warned of competitive pressures and technological changes that would make some changes to those channels necessary.

Companies are trying to cram ever-increasing amounts of video and Internet data down their wires to consumers, while still meeting public-service rules. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., noted that one analog channel takes up as much bandwidth as three high-definition digital channels or 15 standard-definition digital channels.

Dearborn Mayor John O'Reilly Jr. said the city was hopeful it could reach an agreement with Comcast. He said the city wasn't as concerned with Comcast switching public-access channels to digital service as it was to shuffling them across the grid or making them less accessible.

Public access "needs to be on the basic service tier and bundled together," O'Reilly said.

U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who chairs the committee, warned the cable companies that Congress would keep a close eye on any changes involving public access stations.

"It matters little to me if such efforts are driven by technology changes," the lawmaker from Dearborn said. Public-access channels "deserves first-class treatment, not second-class billing."

Contact JUSTIN HYDE at 202-906-8204 or jhyde@freepress.com.

( categories: AT&T | Comcast | MICHIGAN | State Franchises )