Comcast Says Vermont Is Unfairly Dumping Costs on It

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom

RUTLAND, Vt. (CN) — Remote areas of Vermont still lack reliable internet and cable connections, and Comcast has sued the state in Federal Court, saying it is wrongfully trying to force the company to bear costs of a multimillion-dollar expansion if it wants to keep operating there.

Comcast need a Certificate of Public Good to renew its permit to operate in The Green Mountain State, and the state has told Comcast it must expand its service if it wants the certificate. A similar dispute over a Certificate of Public Good for a now-closed nuclear power plant in southern Vermont led to years of litigation.

In its Aug. 28 lawsuit, Comcast says the state’s demands will not only cost Comcast millions, it will force it to raise rates, pushing the costs back on Vermonters.

“These contested conditions would impose tens of millions of dollars in additional regulatory costs and burdens on Comcast and its Vermont cable subscribers,” the lengthy complaint states.

Comcast, represented by one of Vermont’s largest law firms, Downs Rachlin Martin, says the state is improperly placing undue burden upon it and withholding the permit renewal in violation of the federal Cable Act. It seeks declaratory judgment nullifying the state’s requirements for renewal.

The defendants Vermont Public Utilities Commission (VPUC) is demanding that Comcast install 550 miles of new cable line to provide access to remote rural areas, and allow the state’s public access channels to list their programming in Comcast’s television guide.

Though the 43-page lawsuit never uses the term, Vermont is trying to connect its Northeast Kingdom to the worldwide web. The 2,030-square miles of three counties in northeast Vermont have a population density of just 32 people per square mile, and an average elevation of just 3,858 feet, near the Canadian border.

“Federal law establishes procedures and standards for franchising authorities, like the VPUC, to approve such franchise renewals. This federal framework expressly limits the demands and costs that a franchising authority can impose on a cable operator and its local subscribers as a condition of awarding a renewed franchise for continued cable services in a franchise territory,” Comcast says in the complaint. “Vermont law establishes similar standards and limitations on the VPUC, consistent with the federal framework.”

Comcast also claims that as a provider of media content any restriction through withholding of a service permit violates the First Amendment.

“(C)able operators, such as Comcast, are recognized providers of protected speech under the First Amendment and, as such, may not be singled out for undue burdens that infringe on such rights,” according to the complaint. “And, like other citizens, cable operators are entitled to basic due process and other rights afforded under both the United States and Vermont Constitutions.”

The Public Utilities Commission did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Comcast is represented by Christopher Roy with Downs Rachlin Martin’s office in Burlington, and David Murray with Willkie, Farr & Gallagher in Washington, D.C.

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