Public to weigh in on cable company merger

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PUTNEY — Comcast's proposed and controversial acquisition of Southern Vermont Cable Company will get a public hearing next month.

The hearing will be held Monday, Feb. 3, at the O'Brien Auditorium in the East Academic Building at Landmark College in Putney. The Vermont Department of Public Service will begin with a 30-minute informational session at 6 p.m. and the public hearing will begin at 6:30 p.m.

The deal calls for cable television systems currently owned by SVCC, which is said to have about 2,450 subscribers, to be owned and operated by Comcast, which is said to have more than 830,000 customers in more than 300 communities. The smaller company has a certificate of public good from the state that allows it to run a cable TV system in Brattleboro, Brookline, Dover, Dummerston, Jamaica, Marlboro, Newfane, Putney, Townshend, Wardsboro and Westminster.

The two companies have executed an asset purchase agreement but Comcast needs to clear regulatory hurdles before the acquisition. On Dec. 11, the two companies filed a joint petition with the Vermont Public Utility Commission asking for authority to "sell substantially all of SVCC's assets to Comcast ... abandon SVCC's cable-television service in Vermont and revoke its Certificate of Public Good ... and allow Comcast to own and operate SVCC's cable television system in Vermont."

Comcast will need permission from the commission to serve three additional communities where SVCC has assets: Newfane, Putney and Townshend. And the company has shown a willingness to accept a certificate of public good that includes Dover even though SVCC does not currently have any assets or an active cable plant there.

"For more than 30 years, SVCC has offered great local service to its customers and has made significant capital investments in its system throughout the years," Daniel M. Glanville, vice president of government/regulatory affairs and community impact for Comcast's western New England region, said in testimony filed with the commission. "However, there is a need for continued capital investment as technology continues to evolve and video competition continues to increase due to an ever-growing number of video service options."

The sale, he said, "will provide the technical, operational and financial resources needed for continued support of SVCC's system."

Ernest Scialabba, president and owner of SVCC, told regulators his company is small but it has "made significant capital investments in its system throughout the years. However, technology continues to rapidly evolve, which in turn necessitates the need for continued capital investment."

"I am confident that an organization like Comcast will provide SVCC's subscribers with quality customer service and will continue to invest in SVCC's systems," he said.

Only public comments critical of the merger had been filed with the commission as of Jan. 15, the last time one had been posted before press time.

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Worried SVCC's high standard of service might not continue under Comcast's control, state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Windham-4, of Putney has asked the commission to "consider requiring service benchmarks within the ruling to approve the sale."

"Another consideration is expansion to all those consumers who would love to have any cable option," he wrote. "Please require expansion to those who want it."

Steve West of Dummerston told regulators he has "only praise for the good folks at SVCable, and nothing but contempt for Comcast."

"As a computer repair professional for 20 years, I've had many dealings with Comcast/Xfinity, nearly all of it bad," he wrote. "Many of us in rural Vermont have few options. I view them as one of the most toxic companies in the U.S., and I've successfully avoided being a customer."

Martha Ramsey of Brattleboro told the commission she is a Comcast customer and "can attest, along with all my neighbors, that Comcast has a long way to go to providing reliable cable service" to southern Vermont.

"Therefore, I can only assume that this sale would simply be a hostile buyout for the benefit not of customers but of shareholders, and so should not be permitted, in order to prevent any further erosion of decent utility services in Vermont," she wrote. "My Comcast bill has already increased by an outrageous percentage in the last five years without any credible explanation, and I expect such increases to continue. Helping Comcast to become the only player in the market would be to accelerate this race to the bottom — that is, increasingly unaffordable and increasingly shoddy infrastructure and service — that at a scary pace is impoverishing all but the very wealthy."

Comcast's attorney Gerald Tarrant of Tarrant Gillies & Richardson of Montpelier told the Reformer the company will have representatives at the public hearing.

"Comcast will be able to offer faster broadband speeds and a wider array of choices for video, voice, home security and automation, and mobile services as well as Comcast Business products and services to the SVCC service area," he said in an email.

Cor Trowbridge, executive director of Brattleboro Community Television, told the Reformer her station wants to ensure former SVCC customers have "equal benefits" to Comcast customers following the sale in terms of public, education and government (PEG) programming and services. Comcast has provided the public access station with more funding over the years but that is because SVCC fell under an income limit that would require it to pay a full 5 percent franchise fee under Public Utility Commission rules, she said.

"BCTV treats all towns in our service territory the same way, regardless of funding level, so we would seek to equalize the funding and conditions for all of the towns that we serve," she said in an email.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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