Sanders: Free Comcast box doesn't cut it (Rutland Herald)

By Stephanie M. Peters. Herald Staff

Analog Comcast customers who recently lost channels from their service will be given a free digital box for a year — not the price discount demanded by many who gathered Thursday night at Rutland City Hall for a town meeting hosted by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.

About 100 people packed a second-floor meeting room to hear the cable giant's response to Sanders and add their voices to the 300 e-mails and phone calls Sanders estimates he's received in the last month.

Few appeared satisfied with the explanation given by Dan Blakeman, Comcast's area vice president for Vermont. In addition to the free digital box for basic cable customers, Comcast will credit the account of anyone who paid for box installation in the wake of the channel changes.

"The vast majority of our customers are requesting that we upgrade our digital offerings," Blakeman said in explaining why anywhere from eight to 15 channels have been removed from basic analog cable packages. Moving one channel from analog to digital allows Comcast to free space on its advanced fiber optic network for 10 additional digital channels, according to Marc Goodman, a company spokesman. For competitive reasons, Goodman said he could not disclose what customer percentage still uses the analog service.

After a meeting that lasted 2-1/2 hours, Sanders said he was disappointed Comcast made "virtually no concessions."

"We are going to need Congressional action to make sure that people can get reasonably priced cable television," he said. "Left alone, prices will continue to rise and families are going to be priced out of cable television."

Sanders said after much thinking on the issue, he plans to introduce the topic in the Senate soon.

Blakeman's explanation of the digital transition earned groans from members of the crowd who, when given the opportunity to question him, repeatedly said the digital box offer was not an answer to what they were asking for — namely, a price cut or a package that would allow for a la carte channel selection.

Several customers who lined up behind microphones set up at either end of the room shared similar stories. They subscribe to the service they do because of rising rents, the cost of medical treatment, or the tight budget living on Social Security necessitates.

"How many channels do they think people need to watch?" said Johanne Dery of Rutland Town, who recently had eight channels in her service go fuzzy.

Dery and a handful of others walked out in disgust mid-meeting at Blakeman's response to being asked by a representative of the Vermont Department of Public Service whether rural customers who do not have an alternative option such as satellite, could receive a discounted, non-competitive plan.

Blakeman said there are options: "People choose to live where they choose to live."

Alderman William Notte asked Blakeman a very pointed question about Comcast's need to reduce analog channels for the sake of clearing space on its network. Last spring, the Rutland Redevelopment Authority requested to borrow $12,000 from the city to fund exploratory research into building a multimillion-dollar fiber-optic network. The Board of Aldermen nixed the proposal, however, after a Comcast representative advised the board it would be "a waste of the city's money," Notte said.

Notte said he wouldn't be surprised if, in the wake of the Comcast meeting, the proposal comes back before the board soon.

Comcast first came to Vermont in the summer of 2006, when it acquired Adelphia's systems. When the deal was being discussed in 2005, Comcast representatives participated in a similar town meeting, also hosted by Sanders. According to Blakeman, Comcast has worked to meet the promises they made, including not leaving Vermont out of the digital evolution and committing to the community.

While they say they accomplished the latter through charity donation and job creation, Comcast has wired Vermont with more than 600 miles of cable infrastructure to date, and will add 500 more miles in the next few years, connecting people in the northern portion of the state who have never had the service, Blakeman said.