March Cable/OVS meeting

OpenBand Service, Franchise Agreement Under Review

From Leesburg Today, Wednesday, March 31, 2010

By Erika Jacobson Moore

Residents of Broadlands’ Southern Walk neighborhood and Lansdowne had the opportunity to air their complaints last week before the body that will recommend whether the Board of Supervisors should renew the franchise agreement between the county and OpenBand.

The telecommunications carrier, which provides residents and businesses with television, phone and Internet service under an exclusive agreement with the developers of the communities, has held a franchise agreement with the county since 2005. Many residents have complained that the exclusive agreement leaves them with less than satisfactory service and technology offerings, a notion that was repeated by more than a dozen residents who attended the March 24 hearing before the county’s Cable & Open Video Systems Commission.

“We are really being underserved and overcharged,” Lansdowne resident Beverly Smart said. “We are not getting competitive service…We are in a monopoly. We are being held hostage in service that is not competitive. It’s nonsense.”

The commission is conducting a performance review of OpenBand and its compliance with the franchise agreement, to determine whether it would recommend to the Board of Supervisors that the franchise be renewed. The contract entered into by Broadlands developer Van Metre and OpenBand allows the telecommunications carrier to provide exclusive service to the residents for a period of at least 25 years, with the option to extend to up to 75 years. The Lansdowne community has a similar contract with OpenBand, with an obligation up to 75 years.

To a person, those present at the hearing complained that OpenBand did not offer enough high-definition channels for their service, there were continual problems with pixilation and synchronization between picture and sound and the customer service workers at OpenBand were not addressing their concerns.

“The reality is, people just don’t call anymore,” Southern Walk resident Jim Ott said. “They flat out don’t bother. Because they know it won’t be fixed.”

Some speakers complained that customer service can only be reached during daytime hours, but is often in the evening, after work, when they find there are problems. They noted that service orders, or tickets, are closed even if the problem has not been fully addressed.

Lansdowne resident Nancy Abramson said she used to call whenever she had problems but doesn’t any longer. “It’s to the point now that it’s the same answer all the time. They used to come out, but now they don’t. I just feel there’s no point to calling them anymore.”

In addition to the people that spoke at the hearing, the commission received written comments from 13 residents, three of whom said they were satisfied by the service they were receiving from OpenBand. There are approximately 3,500 homes that are served by OpenBand between the two communities. Developers of both communities entered into an exclusive contract with OpenBand to provide service to its residents and they pay fees to OpenBand whether they use the service or not. It is that notion that has some residents upset.

“I’ve stopped using OpenBand completely except for the Internet service,” Kevin Malanga, a Southern Walk resident, said. “I put a dish on my roof and that’s what I use. I know we signed up for it, but they are not up to par with their services. I am paying for, on a monthly basis, a telephone service I that I don’t use, Internet that I do use, and cable that I do not use. I am paying for a service that I don’t use.”

When asked by members of the commission, Malanga noted he originally used OpenBand, but when they had to come out to his home three times in the first year and still did not fix the problems with his cable he switched over the dish.

Erika Hodell-Cotti, the Dulles District representative on the commission, is a member of the Southern Walk HOA, and has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the OpenBand contract with her neighborhood. Cotti noted that she counted 472 satellite dishes on homes in Southern Walk.

“What does that tell you about the service?” Cotti said, while noting many residents could have the dish because of the packages available, not because of problems with OpenBand.

While Cotti and representatives of the Lansdowne HOA acknowledged that OpenBand has worked with their communities, John Whitbeck, who sits on Lansdowne’s Board of Directors, also noted a survey of that community showed “OpenBand is driving a lot more residents to other providers for premium services. It is not a competitive price with these other providers.”

Whitbeck also noted that there were many people in the survey who were happy with their OpenBand service, but added even they expressed concern that “there are other services out there that are better and are more competitively priced.”

With the exclusive contracts between the communities and OpenBand, there were some questions at the March 24 meeting about whether not approving the franchise agreement renewal would have any effect. Attorney Matthew Ames, who is consulting with the commission on the issue, noted one major problem that could stand in the way for the communities: private easements.

“The way Lansdowne is set up, OpenBand is using exclusive easements,” Ames said. “There are some public easements, but the way that is set up, it is effectively impossible for another cable provider to get access.”

But some members of the commission noted OpenBand would likely be required to have a franchise agreement with the county for their contracts with the communities to remain valid.

“If this commission fails to disapprove this franchise, the homeowners are stuck. If the board chooses to disapprove, the contract opens up for renegotiations,” Cotti said.

Members of the commission also noted that there would likely have to be a material breach in the contract for the county not to renew the agreement, but several of the residents questioned whether such standards had been laid out for review.

“Shouldn’t the commission have a clear-cut answer to that before they decide to renew the contract?” Whitbeck asked. “If you’re saying you have to renew it unless there is a material breach, that’s very different to your ability to address our concerns.”

When it comes to the easements, residents had questions about whether OpenBand would hold them exclusively if it chose to walk away from the contracts with the communities.

“It’s really important for the commission to really understand what the potential ramifications are. I am troubled that that is still an open question,” Ott said. “I would encourage some kind of a survey of all the users of OpenBand, sponsored by the commission. Right now, they’re all initiated through the HOA. I think you’re dealing with very limited information, but I think there is an extreme amount of dissatisfaction.”

Commission Chairman Tony Barney (Catoctin) made a motion to postpone a vote on the agreement to a future meeting to give time for commissioners to review the contract again, and to collect more information on the technology and customer service. The commission voted unanimously to support the postponement, with Commissioner Nicholas Graham (At Large) absent for the vote.

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