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Comcast Will Challenge Conditions Of State Permit In U.S. Court

Gene Puskar
Comcast filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court this week challenging provisions in its state permit. The company says it should not have to pay for upgrades to its digital cable network in Vermont.

State regulators say that Comcast has to provide more high definition access to Vermont's community TV stations, and build out its high-def network.

On Tuesday the cable giant filed a suit in federal court, challenging those conditions in its new state permit.Comcast has to renew its state permit every 11 years, and following last year's regulatory hearings the Public Utility Commission ordered the company to upgrade its cable television network in Vermont.

Lauren-Glenn Davitian is with the Vermont Access Network, an advocacy group that represents 25 community TV stations in the state.

Davitian says Comcast should have upgraded the cable network years ago. And she says when the company was asking for a new permit last year the public access TV stations had a chance to argue their case before state regulators.

"We've been fighting with Comcast since they came to Vermont," Davitian says. "And when we went to the Public Utility Commission for the renewal proceedings we wanted to make sure that Comcast would comply with bringing public access into the modern age."

The new permit says Comcast has to allow the public access stations onto its digital program guide.

The state also wants the company to invest in more line extensions so the stations can broadcast live events on a digital network.

Davitian says the public access stations have already spent about $100,000 fighting Comcast, and she says they'll have to ask supporters for additional funds to take part in the federal lawsuit.

"We're going to have to dig deep and hopefully get the support of the wider community who believes that Comcast is overstepping and that this case should be fought," Davitian says. "If we're not successful in this case, if we don't go to the mat, then we really risk public education and government access being lost in the irrelevance of the analog age."

In the suit filed in the U.S. District Court in Burlington, Comcast names Public Utility Commission member Sarah Hoffman and former member James Volz as the defendants.

Comcast says the Public Utility Commission overstepped its authority when it added new costs and requirements to its certificate of public good.

The company says it will cost $4 million to reengineer its cable system so the stations can list their programs on the digital program guide.

And they say it will cost "tens-of-millions" more to lay an estimated 550 miles of cable and provide additional remote access points for the stations to broadcast live events.

Comcast declined to talk about the case.

But in a written statement company spokeswoman Kristen Roberts said the new state permit would, "cost millions of dollars, place discriminatory burdens on Comcast and its customers, and arbitrarily increase their costs for cable service."

Roberts said the company was disappointed that the Public Utility Commission denied an earlier motion to amend the state permit, and that a federal lawsuit was the best course of action to appeal the decision.

Disclosure: Comcast is a VPR underwriter.

Correction 8/31/2017 8:45 a.m. A previous version of this article misspelled James Volz's name. The post has been corrected.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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