Sammamish starts look at cable franchise

March 21, 2014

By Ari Cetron

New: March 21, 10: 32 a.m.

The Sammamish City Council began a formal discussion of the city’s cable franchise agreement during its March 11 study session.

The city inherited an agreement with Comcast from King County when the city incorporated in 1999. The agreement is so old, noted Kamuron Gurol, the city’s development director, that it still refers to TCI as the cable company, not Comcast. Gurol is spearheading the city’s efforts to review its agreement now that the terms are set to expire.

City Manager Ben Yazici noted the city has received complaints about Comcast, as have some councilmembers. No other cable companies operate within the city.

Under the current agreement, the city receives a franchise fee from Comcast, which last year came to about $600,000, to allow Comcast to use public rights-of-way to lay their cables. Those fees are then passed along to residents in their cable bills. Comcast also allows the city the use of channel 21 for public information, such as broadcasting City Council meetings.

Gurol explained the issue with the franchise fee is that the city has no way to audit the amounts, and essentially has to take Comcast at its word that the city is getting the right amount.

The city could also choose to adopt a utility tax, which could raise the same amount of money and would be verifiable. The council could also adopt both the franchise fee and the utility tax, though no one at the meeting expressed any interest in doing so.

Gurol said the next steps in the city’s review are to first look to peer cities and see what sorts of items they have in their agreements. He said he’d also like to conduct a statistically valid survey about residents’ thoughts on Comcast, rather than just hearing anecdotal evidence, and take an inventory of what sorts of telecommunications options exist with the city.

The franchise agreement, in accordance with federal law, is non-exclusive, meaning another company could come in and serve Sammamish. Also, under federal law, it is very difficult for Sammamish to refuse to renew the agreement with Comcast.

The current agreement also contains a clause that forbids the city from offering a better deal to another cable provider.

Councilwoman Nancy Whitten said she would like to see that clause removed.

She also noted there are some parts of the city not being served, and she wants that to change.

“Make sure Comcast comes to the plate and is serving those areas,” she said.

Councilman Bob Keller said he wants to be sure the city has the newest technologies in order to remain competitive.

Councilman Tom Odell suggested trying to negotiate a shorter agreement to give the city some flexibility as new technologies are developed.


What about Google?

Sammamish City Council members have asked about the possibility of enticing Google Fiber to install high-speed lines throughout the city.

Kamuron Gurol, the city’s development director, who is studying the issue, said it’s not likely to happen.

Google is working with a handful of cities around the country, Gurol said. However, they are most interested in serving entire metropolitan areas, not individual cities the size of Sammamish.

While Seattle had been under consideration for a Google partnership, it was not chosen for the high-speed program. Had Seattle been part of the program, there would have been a chance for Sammamish to land some of the lines as well.

Gurol also noted many of the cities which are using Google Fiber are offering major concessions to Google, such as free or reduced fees, to bring them in. He said he’d heard of one city that had installed $30 million worth of fiber lines and then decided it could not continue. They sold the infrastructure to Google for $1.

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