In January 2021, Thurston County adopted a ten-year franchise agreement with Comcast Communications Management, LLC. The cable franchise agreement is a legal agreement between Thurston County and Comcast, authorizing Comcast to use the public rights-of way for its cable system, and setting the amount paid by the cable company for the authorization. This payment is called the “franchise fee.”
Thurston County has entered into cable franchise agreements with Comcast and its predecessors since 1976.
Due to federal and state law, the cable franchise agreement only addresses the cable or video services component of the cable providers service offerings. The county does not have the legal authority to regulate voice or internet services.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does Thurston County’s agreement cover all of Thurston County or only unincorporated Thurston County?
The Thurston County franchise agreement with Comcast covers the use of rights-of-way within unincorporated Thurston County. The cities of Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater have individual cable franchise agreements to address their jurisdictional rights-of-ways.
What is a franchise fee?
The franchise fee is compensation paid to the county for the benefits and privileges granted in the franchise for Comcast to use the county’s rights-of-way. One can think of it as rent for the use of public property. Comcast pays a franchise fee to Thurston County, throughout the duration of and consistent with the franchise agreement, in an amount equal to five percent (5%) of Comcast’s gross revenues collected from subscribers for the cable (video) services it provides within the unincorporated jurisdictional boundaries of the county.
The county, as part of the agreement, also receives 30 cents per cable service subscriber as a Public, Educational, and Government (PEG) fee. This fee dedicated to paying for capital assets or improvements incurred in providing public, educational, and government programs to Comcast subscribers in Thurston County.
How does the county use the money from the franchise fee and the PEG fee?
Thurston County deposits all franchise fee money into the county’s general fund for operations. The county uses some of those funds to contract with TCMedia to pay for operation of local PEG access channels, as well as provides a portion of the PEG fees collected to TCMedia for capital purchases. The balance of the PEG fees is used for the county’s capital purchases supporting access programming.
What can Thurston County negotiate in the cable franchise?
Federal law puts limits on what a local government can negotiate for in a cable franchise. During the cable franchise renewal process, the cable operator’s past performance is reviewed in connection with its provision of cable services to consumers, as well as the future cable-related needs and interests of the community.
Local governments can negotiate:
- General categories of programming to be made available (but not individual channels).
- The capacity of the cable system to carry video programming and requirements to demonstrate compliance with federal technical system standards.
- The amount of the franchise fee paid to the county, up to the federal limits of 5% of gross revenues.
- Process for the cable company to gain access to and work in the rights-of-way.
- Customer service standards related to the provision of cable, video, services.
- Provisions to address potential damages caused by the cable operator’s operations.
- The provision of channel capacity for public, educational, and government access programming along with capital support for those channels.
- Requirements for extension of the cable system to newly developed areas within the county.
- Provisions related to franchise violations and franchise transfers.
As part of the negotiation, an audit is conducted to ensure cable company compliance with its financial obligations. The audit also ensures compliance with federal technical standards for the cable system.
What can’t Thurston County negotiate?
As noted, the franchise only covers the video service components of Comcast’s operations, and not any other services like broadband.
Local governments cannot negotiate:
- Anything related to internet or voice service.
- Imposing any requirements for specific video programming channels.
- Regulating how Comcast determines the structure of its tiers of service.
- Regulating how much Comcast charges for cable programming services.
Local governments also cannot influence the Channel TV Guide operations and publications. Channel TV Guide operation and publication is a separate contract between a vendor and Comcast.
What is the benefit of a cable franchise agreement to consumers?
Franchise negotiations allow local government to:
- Look at Comcast’s financial records, operations, and its record of customer service in our community in connection with provision of cable (video) services, and to take action if relevant requirements are not being met.
- Require specific capacity and functionality of the cable system, unless preempted by FCC authority.
- Facilitate local programming of interest to the community by making access channels for Public, Education, and Government (PEG) programs.
- Regulating how cable companies use public rights-of-way and providing protection to the public from that use.