Ocean City Offers to Extend Free Ride for Comcast

first_imgThe City of Ocean City and Comcast are working to find an alternative location for the Comcast customer service trailer that will be displaced by construction of a new skateboard park on a city-owned parking lot on the 500 block of Asbury Avenue.Ocean City wants to continue a deal that allows Comcast — a cable television company that brought in $17.7 billion of consolidated revenue in 2014 — to set up customer service trailers on city property at no cost.With no lease or written agreement with the city, Comcast has been operating from a portion of a city-owned parking lot at Fifth Street and Asbury Avenue for more than two years. But the Comcast trailers there will be displaced by the construction of a skateboard park later this spring.The city is now trying to identify an alternative location for a similar deal: Ocean City would provide the space rent-free, and Comcast would pay to rent a trailer and to make it handicapped-accessible, according to Ocean City Business Administrator Jim Mallon.The accommodation for a private corporation is part of an effort to keep Comcast in town. Comcast’s permanent office at 341 West Avenue in Ocean City was damaged by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, and the company applied to the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) in 2013 to close the Ocean City location altogether. That move would have required customers to travel to a Comcast office in Pleasantville to create accounts, pay bills and exchange equipment (though these Comcast services also are available online or by mail).While Ocean City has only 11,701 year-round residents, it has more than 19,000 taxable properties, the majority of them connected in some fashion to Comcast services. The tourist economy that sees the island’s population swell with as many as 150,000 visitors at the peak of summer increasingly relies on technology as an amenity.“We feel having a Comcast office in town is incredibly important to our residents,” Mallon said._____Sign up for free news updates from OCNJ Daily.Get Ocean City updates in your Facebook news feed. “Like” us._____A BPU ruling dated Sept. 30, 2014 (see full text in PDF below) approves the closing of Comcast offices in Northfield and Ventnor, but requires Comcast to “keep at minimum a ‘seasonal office’ (April 15 to Oct. 15) on the barrier islands similar to the service provided now by use of the Ocean City trailer.”The ruling notes that the franchise agreements in the towns do not require Comcast to maintain offices there.“The board has reviewed the franchise agreement,” the BPU writes. “Contrary to the contentions of Ocean City, Ventnor and Margate, the proposed office closings are not in contravention of the franchises currently in effect for the respective municipalities. None of the franchises require that the local service office be located within the respective municipalities.”But BPU staff noted that because Ocean City customers would have to travel the farthest to the Pleasantville office (12.7 miles), they would suffer the greatest impact.New rules that took effect Nov. 3, 2014, however, allow cable companies to relocate any office without seeking BPU permission unless the nearest other office is more than 35 miles away. IS COMCAST REQUIRED TO OPERATE IN OCEAN CITY?Neither the city, Comcast nor the BPU itself seem to be able to clarify the vague and seemingly contradictory BPU orders.Asked to clarify the ruling, BPU Public Information Officer Earl Pierce responded by repeating it.The ruling requires Comcast to “keep at minimum a ‘seasonal office’ (April 15 to Oct. 15) on the barrier islands similar to the service provided now by use of the Ocean City trailer.” But immediately following that order is a section that says, “Petitioner shall notify the Board immediately if it withdraws the customer service trailer located in Ocean City and provide an explanation as to how it will provide service to the barrier islands.”“I can’t answer your following questions as they are hypotheticals,” Pierce responded to these follow-up questions:“The barrier islands” is a designation that could reasonably be interpreted to include any town from Wildwood to Sandy Hook in New Jersey. Could Comcast set up shop in any of them to fulfill its requirement?Could Comcast simply close the seasonal office in Ocean City and provide an explanation to the BPU that customers will have to travel to Pleasantville 12.7 miles away (as the company had originally proposed in its application to close the Ocean city office)?“It leaves some concern for us that there’s legal room,” Ocean City’s Mallon said of the rulings.Comcast spokesperson Jennifer Bilotta said only that Comcast will continue to comply with the BPU order. She would not elaborate on Comcast’s interpretation of the order. ONGOING NEGOTIATIONSAcknowledging that there was never a written agreement, Mallon said the arrangement dates back to  Superstorm Sandy.“We wanted to make sure Comcast had a resource,” Mallon said of the effort to rebuild and restore services in the aftermath of the disaster. “We gave them that spot on Fifth Street that wasn’t fully used.”He suggested the city has a better chance of retaining a Comcast office by working with the company than by relying on the BPU order.“We’re still in negotiations,” Mallon said. “But the conversation has been positive. They’ve been great.”Billet said the company would continue to work with Ocean City toward an agreement. She said Comcast is still evaluating its plans for the off-season.“At the city’s request, Comcast is making plans to remove its temporary customer service center at Fifth and Asbury in Ocean City to make room for a municipal construction project,” Bilotta said last week. “In preparation, we are working with the city to open a new temporary location by early May. Customers will be notified of the change and there will be no gap in service for Ocean City customers, as the existing location will not close until the new service center is open.”City Solicitor Dottie McCrosson said that because the potential deal with Comcast is not a lease agreement, the city is under no obligation to seek public bids. She said any potential new arrangement with Comcast would include a written agreement that addresses liability and other issues.Download (PDF, 178KB)last_img read more