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December 11, 2009

Comcast, RETN Settle Contract Dispute

The Vermont Public Service Board has dismissed a case involving a long-running dispute between Comcast and the Regional Educational Technology Network (RETN) over how public-access money was being spent in Chittenden County.

The case was closed after the PSB accepted a settlement agreement between the two parties. That settlement agreement was filed with the board in late September and finally approved Thursday.

Comcast and RETN issued the following joint statement this afternoon:

“Comcast and RETN have signed a five-year agreement that ensures quality educational access programming and related services will be provided to the towns of Burlington, Charlotte, Essex, Essex Junction, Ferrisburgh, Hinesburg, St. George, Shelburne, South Burlington, Vergennes, Waltham, Williston, and Winooski. As a result, both parties requested that the Vermont Public Service Board dismiss Docket #7497, which it has done.”

In a separate statement, RETN officials said they were glad that the dispute, which began in January, had come to an end.

"We are pleased to have secured full funding for the programming and services we provide our communities and cable subscribers,” said RETN spokesperson Doug Dunbebin. “We now look to our statewide association, the Vermont Access Network, and offer our full support as it works to resolve important issues facing public, educational and government access television in Vermont.”

On January 23, 2009, Comcast filed a petition with the Vermont Public Service Board alleging, among other things, that RETN had failed to perform properly as an "Access Management Organization ... by failing to manage its funds in a manner consistent with the public nature of those funds, and failing to adhere to reasonable standards of corporate governance."

RETN denied any wrongdoing, and an independent fiscal review found no evidence of misuse of funds. However, RETN did voluntarily agree to improve some of its accounting practices and how timely it filed reports with the state.

The fiscal review was ordered after contract talks stalled earlier this year and Comcast asked state regulators to absolve it from giving money to RETN to provide educational programming on Channel 16 for parts of Chittenden County. That led to the two sides inking a deal to keep RETN funded while they hammered out their issues.

Comcast has taken similarly tough stances with other public-access channels in Vermont, said Rob Chapman, president of the Vermont Access Network, which represents the state's community-run public, educational and governmental channels in Vermont. Comcast has questioned the use of money, for example, to develop programming that is then broadcast on the Internet.

"We are concerned that Comcast is trying to negotiate away the obligations in their [certificate of public good] by focusing on these issues with individual organizations who do not have the kind of resources necessary to defend themselves," said Chapman. "It does seem as if Comcast is trying to redefine some of the regulatory structure of these contracts and is beginning to cut away at some the benefits these access centers provide to the community."

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