WATERBURY -- Many Vermonters are unhappy with Adelphia Communications, the largest cable TV provider in Vermont, but activists warn there's no guarantee that Comcast Corp., its probable successor, will be any better. In April, Comcast and Time Warner bid $17.6 billion to buy Adelphia. If the deal goes through, Comcast will take over Adelphia's Vermont network.
Federal and state regulators -- including Vermont's quasi-judicial Public Service Board -- must first approve the sale. On July 19, the PSB held a public hearing via Vermont Interactive Television to find out what Vermonters think of the plan. More than 30 people showed up at VIT satellite locations across Vermont to witness the hearing. Participants included representatives from the state's 43 public, education and government (PEG) access channels, as well employees of Comcast and Adelphia.
With 21 million subscribers, Comcast Corp. is the country's largest cable TV provider; Adelphia is the fifth-largest cable company, with five million subscribers, 112,000 of them in Vermont. It's unlikely that the board will try to block the sale. But it can insist that Comcast honor Adelphia's promises to "build out" the cable network in order to reach more rural areas; an estimated 35 percent of Vermonters still don't have access to cable TV. It can also set standards regarding technology, customer service and commitments to PEG access channels.
Speaking for the company from the Waterbury VIT studio, Mark Reilly, a Comcast vice president, began the hearing by announcing that his company is "looking forward to fulfilling" Adelphia's line extension obligations; Adelphia is required to add 1500 miles of cable by 2009. The extra cable will also bring broadband Internet availability to underserved parts of the state. "We understand how important it is in Vermont that these lines be built," said Reilly.
He also promised "substantial improvements to customer care." Adelphia has a dismal reputation for customer service in Vermont. In fact, several of the speakers berated the company. Only one woman proudly proclaimed herself a "satisfied Adelphia customer"; she later admitted she's also an Adelphia employee.
Many of the speakers cautioned that Comcast's reputation isn't so great, either. Michael Montanye of St. Albans testified that when he lived in Maryland, "Comcast was the only game in town." He said he could tell "horror stories" of people waiting three months for service. "That was in a metro area," he said. "We're a rural state. What kind of service are we going to get? We need watchdogs on this one."
John Bloch, president of Onion River Community Access Media, Inc., who spoke from Waterbury, said he is "deeply concerned" about the sale. "We are dealing with a huge corporate entity," he cautioned, "and bigger is not necessarily better." Bloch warned that the PSB needs to set firm limits with Comcast, because if the company decides not to extend service in Vermont, or if it reneges on its commitments to funding for PEG access, lawyers for the state could wind up in a "pissing match" with Comcast. Bloch said he has no doubt who would win: "Comcast . . . in a day."
Speaking from Williston, labor organizer Ralph Montefusco charged that Comcast has opposed union efforts, and Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director of CCTV, expressed concern that acquisition of Adelphia would make Comcast the country's number one Internet portal. Davitian charged that Comcast might someday block Internet content it found objectionable. "That should strike fear -- and I'm not overstating my point here -- in the hearts of people in the U.S.," Davitian said.
After the hearing, Comcast spokesman Rob Wilson said the company appreciates all the public input. He also claimed the company has "over 90-percent satisfaction in the Northeast," and noted that Comcast was twice voted one of the best places to work by a publication in Boston. The company has said it plans to maintain its Vermont workforce at about 300.
The next step in this process is a formal hearing, to take place before the PSB in October. Congressman Bernie Sanders has expressed interest in holding a public forum on the issue in September, and the PSB welcomes citizen feedback before it issues a ruling near the end of the year.
Before leaving the hearing for the drive back to Manchester, New Hampshire, Wilson said the company eagerly anticipates getting the go-ahead. "We look forward to the opportunity to come in here and show that Comcast is a great company," he said.