Tri-Citians may soon see a different name on their cable bills.
Connecticut-based Charter Communications is giving up its cable operations in the Northwest to Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider.
The deal is part of an agreement in which Comcast lets go of some operations in the Midwest and Southeast because it is trying to get regulatory approval for its merger with Time Warner Cable.
The Richland City Council has already approved a transfer. Existing franchise agreements in Kennewick and West Richland may allow transfers without local government approval.
Pasco’s council is expected to vote soon, but Mayor Matt Watkins is not happy with the prospect of Philadelphia-based Comcast coming to town.
Watkins took a rare stand against the recommendations of his city’s staff, blasting Comcast at Monday’s council workshop meeting. He pointed to 2014 Tempkin Customer Service Ratings, which rated Comcast’s television and internet services tied for last among 233 companies reviewed.
Charter’s internet service was rated 216, and it was ranked 228 for TV in the ratings for types of companies that people deal with.
“I think Comcast’s customer service is horrendous,” Watkins told the Herald. “Pasco citizens went from Charter, which is no prize, to making it worse.”
Cities across the country have had problems with Comcast, as well, said Watkins, who works as a software engineer for Lockheed Martin Information Technology in his day job.
“I don’t usually get that animated,” Watkins said. “I really question Comcast’s management and technical ability.”
But, from the standpoint of cities working with the companies, Deputy City Manager Stan Strebel said he has heard from communities that have had better dealings with Comcast than Charter. It wasn’t until Comcast stepped in that Pasco settled a dispute over unpaid franchise fees and utility taxes from 2007-14.
Charter will pay Pasco $90,322 if the council approves the agreement at its Nov. 17 meeting.
The transfer to Comcast would happen after the Federal Communications Commission approves the merger with Time Warner, which could happen in March, Strebel said. It would need 85 percent of the impacted cities to approve the transfer.
The city has a right to vote down the transfer, but Strebel said that might not be practical if every other city agrees to allow Comcast to come in.
“We’ve got one franchise in the western United States, and it’s Pasco,” Strebel theorized Charter officials saying. “Are we going to keep an office there? Are we going to respond to Pasco’s needs? The answer is no, and we’re out of business. The only other option is to have Comcast do it, because they’re operating in Kennewick, Richland and Yakima.”
Other cable companies are also not likely to come in, since they would have to either buy Charter’s infrastructure or put in their own, Strebel said.
“They’d have to string wires on every street, they’d have to make a connection to every house,” he said. “Do you think that would be a cost-effective move for 20,000 homes?’
Comcast spokesman Steve Kipp declined to comment.
Not all the Pasco council members agreed with Watkins’ position at Monday’s meeting. Councilman Al Yenney said the agreement will likely go through whether they approve it or not, adding that he has been on hold with Charter for more than 30 minutes at times.
“I think we’ll get it one way or another, and, happily, we got the $90,000 we’ve been fighting for,” he said.
The city council in Richland, which like Pasco has been negotiating to extend its franchise agreement with Charter, approved the transfer to Comcast at its Nov. 4 meeting as part of the consent agenda, where several items are approved at once.
“When the transfer is finalized, we’ll continue the discussions with Comcast,” said Trish Herron, Richland’s communications and marketing manager.
Kennewick might not have to approve the transfer at all, said Evelyn Lusignan, the city’s public relations and customer service manager. Its 25-year agreement with Charter runs through 2019.
“Our language in our franchise agreement may already allow for the transfer,” she said.
West Richland’s agreement with Charter does allow it to transfer to different providers, said City Clerk Julie Richardson.