Town can’t reach deal with Comcast

FRONT ROYAL – Comcast continues to operate in town and use Front Royal’s utility poles without a lease agreement.

The lack of a renewed deal sparked concern among some Town Council members this week. Town Manager Steve Burke said scheduling conflicts have prevented representatives for both parties from meeting to discuss the terms of a new deal.

Comcast attaches its equipment to the town’s utility poles and, through a lease agreement with Front Royal, pays a fee to use the space. That agreement expired in June 2013, Burke said. A separate, non-binding franchise agreement between Front Royal and Comcast allowing the company to provide cable and Internet services in town remains in effect, Burke said.

“It’s simply been that the negotiations to update the pole-attachment agreement has been going on for an extended period of time,” Burke said.

Finance Director Kim Gilkey-Breeden said she continues to charge Comcast the same rate per pole as set in the most recent lease agreement. Comcast remains current with its payments, Gilkey-Breeden said.

At council’s work session Monday, Councilman Eugene Tewalt asked where the town stands with Comcast and, specifically, the lease agreement. Tewalt voiced frustration that no new deal has come before council.

Assistant Town Attorney George Sonnett said Wednesday that no new lease agreement exists and parties have not come together to discuss the terms. A 10-year lease expired May 12, 2013, Sonnett said, citing the document.

“There is no agreement currently for their equipment to be on our poles,” Sonnett said. “Now you could say maybe there’s some implied agreement there until we agree on a new written agreement … In other words we haven’t told them to get their equipment off our poles.

“Usually you have an agreement in place, certainly, and we’ve attempted to do that and we haven’t come to an agreement on terms,” Sonnett said.

In the previous agreement, Front Royal charged Comcast $13 per pole attachment and that rate remains in effect.

“We feel market value is more in the $25 per pole [range],” Sonnett said.

But the non-binding franchise agreement between Front Royal and Comcast also has lapsed.

The attorney pointed out that the franchise agreement states that “this franchise will be extended for an additional five years, provided that there is no existing breach of any of the terms and conditions therein, and there are no unresolved complaints by customers at the end of the initial 10-year term, and provided that all payments and fees, including those for maintenance and replacement of equipment are current.”

“So there’s never been an acknowledgement that the franchise has been renewed because of that language,” Sonnett said. “You can see where one [agreement] feeds into the other.”

Tewalt asked if the town could give Comcast a specific date by which they must come up with a new agreement.

“This thing’s already outdated for five years,” Tewalt said. “We’re losing money every day that we let it go by because of our pole attachments.”

Tewalt also asked if the town could charge Comcast a new rental fee from the time the agreement expired.

“Well, we have put them on notice that any increase in the pole-attachment fee they will be billed from the time that the current attachment agreement expired,” Burke told council. “We have discussed that and they have verbally agreed to that in meetings that we have been able to have with them.”

Tewalt noted that talks last stalled because the town and Comcast representatives couldn’t agree on terms. Town Attorney Douglas Napier concurred and said the situation hadn’t changed.

Councilman Bret Hrbek pointed out that Front Royal has limited choices when it comes to cable and Internet providers. Any other company that wanted to supply service in town would need to cover the cost to install equipment throughout Front Royal, Burke said.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of leverage that we can bring them to the table,” Burke said.

“I don’t want to portray [Comcast] as being disinterested, it’s just that we’re not high on their radar,” Burke said.

Tewalt suggested that the town notify Comcast that they no longer can use the poles, but that could disrupt service to customers.

Napier agreed that a lack of competition limits the town’s negotiating power.

“We’ve gone through every possible scenario,” Napier said. “If there was another competitor, we’d have some leverage. If we pulled the plug on them, there isn’t anyone else to go to.”

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com