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February 17, 2009

Comcast Gets Schooled

Area school boards are coming to the defense of the Regional Educational Technology Network (RETN) in its brewing battle with telecom giant Comcast.

The Burlington School Board last week issued a resolution in support of RETN. Comcast is arguing to the state Public Service Board that it should be allowed to back out of two contracts with RETN to provide educational programming in Chittenden County.

Logo_retn As first reported in “Fair Game” two weeks ago, the telecom giant Comcast has been criticizing RETN and other providers of Public Educational and Governmental (PEG) services before the PSB and in the public arena. Comcast claims that RETN has mismanaged and misspent the money Comcast is required to give back to communities for the right to use the public airwaves to turn a profit. State and federal law enables Vermont to make cable companies use 5 percent of their gross revenues to finance this kind of programming.

RETN officials reject Comcast’s claims, saying they have answered all financial concerns and are willing to allow an outside audit. RETN claim’s the telecom giant is trying to micromanage its operations as a first step in having unprecedented say on how RETN and all PEG operators in Vermont spend public access dollars. 

Last week, the first school board in the region pushed back against Comcast’s PEG playground bullying. The board issued the following statement: "Be it resolved that the Burlington Board of School Commissioners appreciates and supports the work of RETN and its valuable contribution to students, the board, and the community of Burlington by providing public television access, enhancing democracy through transparency of government, and creating educational opportunities for students."

This resolution came despite a tersely-worded three-page letter from Comcast explaining that RETN was in the wrong and Comcast, it told the board, was only trying to “protect your constituents’ investments.”

Yeah, right. Comcast shouldn’t be casting the first stone. A recent management audit of the cable company faulted it for allowing the founding family to hold too much power over other shareholders. President and CEO Brian Roberts’ total compensation for 2007 was $20 million, a figure consultants called “excessive.”

According to Doug Dunbebin of RETN, Winooski’s school board voted to issue a statement of support similar to the one passed by Burlington. And South Burlington said it intended to draft a statement to be voted on at a future meeting.

This week RETN expects to file its official response to Comcast’s complaint to the Public Service Board.

UPDATE: This afternoon, RETN announced that it has completed its point-by-point response to Comcast's petition seeking to back out of its two contracts with the PEG provider.

"RETN's response will refute Comcast's statements about a lack of local programming and inappropriate use of local PEG access funding. It will include an analysis of production and programming that shows the channel airs about 60 percent local programming, not 10-15 percent as stated in Comcast's petition," RETN officials said in a news release.

RETN said its response will also provide a detailed account of the communication since October 2007 between RETN and Comcast regarding requests for detailed documentation of financial, organizational, and Board of Directors processes.

"It will outline the proactive steps RETN has taken to improve administrative and financial reporting," the release said.

By early March, RETN expects to file its own motion with the PSB to ensure funding for educational programming continues during the dispute.

A pre-hearing conference on the Comcast/RETN dispute is scheduled for Monday, February 23, at 11 a.m. at the PSB hearing room in Montpelier.

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