Champaign rejects Comcast's franchise-renewal proposal

Champaign rejects Comcast's franchise-renewal proposal

CHAMPAIGN – City council members voted unanimously Tuesday to reject Comcast's formal proposal to renew their cable franchise in town.

The move triggers a more formalized negotiating process after a year of unsuccessful informal negotiations, but it isn't likely to result in Comcast being ousted as Champaign-Urbana's cable provider. That's because Comcast can opt at any time to operate under a state franchise, officials said.

Rick Atterbery, a member of Champaign's negotiating team and the chairman of the CU Joint Cable & Telecommunications Commission, said that after it became apparent informal negotiations weren't working, the city solicited formal proposals to provide cable service in town and Comcast was the only responder, offering a 10-year proposal.

Comcast's proposal fell far short of what the city wants, and the negotiating team recommended preliminarily rejecting the proposal, he said.

"A lot of the things we talked about doing in informal negotiations are not part of this formal proposal," Atterbery said.

Among problems he listed:

– There is no requirement that Comcast maintain a local office.

– The requirements for obtaining a sought-after fifth Public Education and Government channel (PEG) are so onerous that they likely cannot be met.

"They would require more original programming (on PEG channels) than NBC is providing," Atterbery joked.

– Comcast wants to redefine "gross revenues" in a way that would substantially reduce the $700,000 the city expects to receive this year from its 5 percent franchise fee.

Comcast can request an administrative hearing regarding the preliminary denial. A hearing officer would then be appointed by the city, hear testimony and make a recommendation that the city council accept or reject the Comcast formal proposal based on whether it complies with the city's adopted community-needs assessment. The council would then have the final say on whether the proposal is rejected.

The city could theoretically require Comcast to remove or abandon its city facilities, but Comcast could fight a council rejection in court or seek a state franchise, making Comcast's ouster highly unlikely, Atterbery said.

Deb Piscola, Comcast's director of government affairs, attended the meeting and said she was optimistic a franchise agreement can be hammered out. She said informal negotiations can continue along with the formal process simultaneously.

"Ninety-nine percent of franchise renewals are completed through the informal process," she said. "I feel very confident we will reach an agreement."

Piscola also said she believes Comcast will retain a local office, and that the differences over the franchise fee can be worked out.

Council members said they won't accept a bad franchise agreement.

"We have to defend the rights of 75,000 people who live in Champaign and pay phenomenal amounts of cash for cable services," Tom Bruno said.

Also Tuesday, the council voted to amend the zoning ordinance to substantially reduce the required minimum number of parking spaces for grocery stores, merchandise and retail stores. The new standard will require that a retailer provide one parking space for every 300 square feet of building.

Under the city's old standard, a grocery store with 60,000 square feet of space would have been required to have 400 parking spaces. Now, only 200 spaces would be mandated, though a developer could add more spaces than the minimum.

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