Northeast metro cable customers will likely have a new cable provider within months.
The Ramsey-Washington Suburban Cable Commission (RWSCC) has conditionally approved Comcast's request to transfer its customers to a new startup company called GreatLand Connections. The councils and boards of affected communities also need to sign off on the deal; several White Bear area governing bodies did so recently.
A $45 billion merger between Comcast and Time Warner is proposed. To appease industry regulators, Comcast pledged to shed 2.5 million customers so the merged company would not own more than 30 percent of the national TV service market.
Twin Cities subscribers make up a portion of those 2.5 million customers and so Comcast asked cities and cable commissions in the metro area to approve its proposal to transfer service to GreatLand Connections, a new company co-owned by Comcast shareholders (two-thirds) and Charter Communications (one-third). Comcast and, later, Charter would provide technical and operational support to the new company. There is speculation that Charter will, in a few years, attempt to acquire GreatLand.
"We've done the best we can to develop the kind of protections we need to allow this thing to go ahead," Timothy Finnerty, executive director of the RWSCC, told the White Bear Town Board last week. "We will really look at how their customer service sets up, how they do their service calls and what their billing practices are. We are going to need to be on top of things from day one with GreatLand because they don't have a track record. It's a gamble."
The RWSCC initially was inclined to deny the merger request, but later agreed to support it if several conditions are met. Written into the agreement authorizing Comcast's transfer of services to GreatLand Connections are:
• An assurance that customer rates and charges will not increase as a result of the cost of the transfer;
• A guarantee of the company's financial ability to provide cable services;
• An agreement that, were GreatLand Connections to file for bankruptcy, RWSCC would be treated as a "preferred creditor" for the payment of franchise fees and PEG fees (designated for public, educational, or governmental programming channels) to the municipalities within the RWSCC area;
• A commitment to extend cable service to the currently unserved regions of Grant and Lake Elmo;
• Resolution of safety code concerns; and
• Extension of the existing cable franchise through 2018.
The White Bear Town Board members expressed some concerns but approved the transfer March 2. The Mahtomedi and Grant councils OK'd the transfer March 3 and the White Bear Lake City Council approved it on March 10.
The Vadnais Heights City Council discussed the merger at length March 4 and tabled action until a special meeting March 11. Councilman Bob Fletcher indicated he would vote in opposition, citing concerns about reduced quality of service, the financial viability of GreatLand Connections and more. But he was absent from the March 11 special meeting and all of his council colleagues voted to permit the transfer.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) still has to approve the final terms of the Comcast-Time Warner merger. If it were to deny the transaction, Twin Cities cable subscribers would remain with Comcast.
If it is approved, the transition likely would begin this June or July, Comcast Vice President of Government Affairs Emmett Coleman told the Mahtomedi City Council.
— Kristine Goodrich contributed to this story