A cable television franchise agreement is a legal agreement between the City and Comcast Cable, and is required by state and federal law. The agreement authorizes Comcast to install facilities in City streets, and mandates obligations that Comcast must meet.
The City’s cable television franchise agreement with Comcast was approved by the Bellingham City Council in October 2011 and will expire in November 2021.
Information about the City’s 2010 project to renew its cable franchise agreement is available in the Comcast Cable Franchise Renewal Final Project Report (PDF). The report was completed in September 2011.
Why does the City get involved in cable television services? Because cable companies “rent” space on public property for their transmission lines. In exchange for this use of public property, federal law allows local governments to collect a fee from the company and to regulate limited aspects of cable service. A process outlined in federal law is used to establish cable franchise agreements, and community input about cable service is an important step in this process.
Comcast – the nation’s largest cable television provider – provides residential cable television service that uses public rights of way in the City of Bellingham. Comcast currently provides cable television services throughout the City, serving approximately 20,150 subscribers, under a cable franchise agreement. This agreement allows Comcast to install cable and facilities throughout the City’s rights-of-way in return for the payment of certain rental fees – known as franchise fees – and other benefits for Bellingham and its residents. Under the agreement the City also imposes various obligations on Comcast to protect the rights and interests of Bellingham residents and cable subscribers.
The process to renew a cable franchise, as established by federal law, encourages the City to evaluate the technological, financial and communications needs of Bellingham and its residents. The process also authorizes the City to negotiate certain cable-related benefits to meet those needs over the next term of the franchise. Franchise agreements typically are adopted for terms of 5-15 years.
Cable franchise renewal process
The cable franchise renewal process is significantly controlled by the federal law. The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 (Wikisource) adopted procedures that cities must follow to respond to a request for renewal by an existing cable operator such as Comcast. As part of the franchise renewal process, the City will determine community needs and interests with regard to the cable system, as well as examine technical and financial issues and requirements.
Due to the substantial capital investment required to construct a modern cable system, the Cable Act gives cable companies certain advantages in renewing their franchises. The law limits the City’s ability to deny renewal of a cable franchise. Even where the City can regulate, the federal government has established provisions that may limit the City’s authority.
Federal law limits local authority
In many communities, people ask the following questions:
Why not put the franchise out for bid, like other contracts?
While a competitive cable provider may apply for a franchise at any time, the City must go through the renewal process with each existing cable operator. The City cannot deny renewal to an existing cable operator except for specific criteria set forth in the Cable Act.
Why can’t we tell the operator which television programs to carry?
Cable operators have First Amendment protections so the City has very limited authority to regulate the type of cable channels carried or the content of cable television programming Comcast makes available in Bellingham.
Why can’t we regulate non-cable services?
The City does not have authority to regulate non-cable services (e.g., high-speed Internet access and telephone service) provided by Comcast. Federal law allows only for regulation of cable television services.
- Executive Summary (PDF)
- Full report (7,300K PDF)
- Physical Plant Inspection of Comcast Communications in Bellingham – Executive Report (8,100K PDF)
- Website survey results summary for all respondents (PDF)