Cable services: renewing Comcast in Brookline

On Wednesday, September 16, starting at 7 pm in Town Hall, members of the Board of Selectmen and its cable television committee conducted a public hearing on renewal of the Comcast license to operate in Brookline. What they heard was dominated by insiders, trying to extract more money for local programming efforts, now called Brookline Interactive, and for subsidies to low-income residents. Attendance was about 15 people.

Technology dreams: Boosters for Brookline Interactive seemed divided into two camps. One was looking mainly for better distribution of content, the other looking mainly for better technology to deliver it. Karen Katz of Pleasant St., president of Brookline Interactive, complained about “no delivery” of her organization’s content by Comcast, recently rebranded as Xfinity. Comcast does not display a schedule of Brookline Interactive programs. She wanted more Comcast money to support local programming efforts.

Albert Davis of James St., who described himself as a media producer, does productions at Brookline Interactive. He complained that Comcast “does not support an everyday medium”–meaning high-definition, wide-screen television–calling that “a huge mistake.” He wanted Comcast to “get involved” with Brookline Interactive, a “partnering opportunity.”

Kathy Bisbee of Gorham Ave., recently hired as Brookline Interactive director, mentioned “over the top” fees as a way to boost her organization’s take of Comcast revenue. Although she did not explain, that would be techno-speak for fee-based, Internet-distributed services such as Showtime, currently about $11 a month.

Limited incomes: At an opposite pole from Ms. Bisbee and Brookline Interactive technophiles was David Trietsch of Linden Pl., board chair of the Brookline Housing Authority. He complained that few public housing residents could afford any type of Internet service–and probably not $11 a month “over the top.” Recently, he said, RCN has offered “favorable terms” for service to the new Dummer St. project.

Frank Caro of Beacon St., a member of the cable television committee and a Precinct 10 town meeting member, spoke for retired residents. He said he found almost no “senior discounts” for telecommunication services in Brookline. He was “deeply disappointed” that Comcast offered only $2 a month off, only on “basic” service.

The sole Brookline residents to complain about the quality of Comcast services were Cathy Corman of Pleasant St. and her husband Mark Penzel. Their house had apparently been built after the neighborhood was wired and has no cable service. Comcast initially wanted over $20,000 to install a cable but then offered to do that for $2,300 if it could dig a trench beside a tree in a neighbor’s lawn.

High costs: What none of the earnest speakers mentioned but would surely be uppermost for a network operator are high costs of new technology. At an average cost per person estimated by Goldman Sachs, Comcast would need to invest around $30 million to replace its Brookline network. That looks unlikely for a business with annual revenue potential around $10 million: possibly a 10-year payback or worse.

Comcast is stuck with early 1980s cable technology: good for its day but well into old age. It was built for 1953 NTSC broadcast television, about 6 MHz per channel. HDTV in 1080p24 format–the newer “wide screen” broadcast standard since 1998–needs about three times the bandwidth, despite digital techniques. However, it can be fit into 6 MHz channels through digital compression, at loss of optical and temporal definition.

With its dated cable infrastructure, Comcast cannot achieve the level of services fiber-optic systems can provide, such as those installed by RCN and promised–some day–by FIOS technology from Verizon. However, by replacing its complex of signal-transmission electronics and requiring subscribers to install new set-top boxes and modems, Comcast could augment services.

Providing a degraded, 720i24 format of HDTV, while maintaining its repertoire of channels and continuing to use its 1980-era cables above and below the streets could be realistic. Even such a limited project might cost several million dollars to retrofit Comcast’s infrastructure in Brookline. The company would still retain a trouble-prone network of aging cables that has been irritating customers for years.

Silent voices: At the Wednesday hearing, no one spoke up for ordinary customers, surely the vast majority of those concerned about Comcast services in Brookline. The Board of Selectmen did not make any more than minimal, legally required efforts to publicize the hearing. Had they done so, the sixth-floor meeting room might have overflowed.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, September 17, 2015


Mark Biegert, High-definition television bandwidth, Math Encounters (Maple Grove, MN), 2012

Karl Bode, Google fiber build estimate: $140 billion, DSL Reports (New York, NY), 2012

Heather Bellini, et al., Clash of the titans, Goldman Sachs Group, December 7, 2012

Craig Bolon, Broadband telecommunications: Brookline-based services, Brookline Beacon, August 22, 2015

Housing Authority: renovations, programs and project development, Brookline Beacon, August 11, 2014

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