No Comcast deal

BOARD OF SUPERVISORS president Aaron Peskin, who cast the deciding vote to approve a rotten new four-year contract extension with Comcast, the city's monopoly cable TV provider, told the San Francisco Chronicle afterwards that he didn't particularly like the arrangement. "I would love to vote against this," he said.

But Peskin and others argued that federal law has largely preempted the city's ability to negotiate cable franchise contracts, and besides, as Peskin told us, there are only so many battles San Francisco can take on at one time. Under the circumstances, Peskin says, the city had little leverage and did the best it could.

That argument, as Sup. Tom Ammiano told us, misses the big picture. San Francisco has huge leverage over Comcast, the kind of negotiating clout that could bring the city way, way more than the chump change Comcast is offering to pay in exchange for a contract extension. All the city needs to do is explain to Comcast that the alternative to a reasonable deal is a municipal takeover of local cable service.

That's not such a radical idea: Across the bay, the relatively conservative city of Alameda has municipal cable. Publicly controlled cable would mean lower rates, better service, more options – and would give the city the ability to offer Internet access for peanuts. And it would mean the end to a very, very lucrative market for Comcast.

There's nothing in federal law that prohibits the city from running its own system – and nothing that prevents city officials from giving Comcast the facts of life: Improve service (including much shorter service-call windows), cut rates, offer free Internet to low-income people, agree to reasonable labor contracts, and put a lot more money – a whole lot more money – into public access. Or the city will do the job itself.

Part of the reason we're in this mess is that the Newsom administration bungled the contract preparations. A community-needs assessment, which would have given city negotiators a blueprint for what San Francisco wanted, was never completed in time. But the real problem has been Comcast. Here's how intractable the cable operator has been: Sup. Ross Mirkarimi offered a rather mild amendment to the contract that would require Comcast to abide by federal labor laws. Comcast insists that any changes to the existing deal – any – are unacceptable and the company will reject them.

Fine. Let Comcast reject the city's proposals. What's the worst that can happen? Comcast will continue to provide cable service (without a contract) while the city either puts the franchise out to bid or develops its own municipal cable plan.

All a four-year extension does is give Comcast more time to lobby Congress to eliminate all franchise fees nationwide and to gear up for squeezing the city in an even worse deal later.

The franchise extension won't be finalized until Sept. 27. Peskin and Sophie Maxwell, both of whom often vote with the progressives on the board, can still change their minds and reject it.

At the same time as this discussion is going on, Mayor Newsom is pushing his "Tech Connect" plan to provide affordable wireless broadband service to the entire city. It's a great idea, and the mayor is saying all the right things (the number one goal stated in the city's Request for Information document is to "ensure universal, affordable wireless broadband access for all San Franciscans, especially low-income and disadvantaged residents"). The document lists four options for service, and a city-run Internet utility is at the top of the list.

But so far most of the attention has come from private companies that want a contract. That could leave the city in the same circumstances that it's in now: locked into a contract with a monopoly private-communications provider that offers lousy service, high rates – and no way to get out of a bum deal.

The Tech Connect plan is moving along quickly, and the private vendors are well along with their plans and proposals. But the public isn't sufficiently involved. The final day for sending comments on the plan is Sept. 28, and Media Alliance, a local activist group, is asking the city to extend that deadline and make a more concerted effort to do public outreach.

In the end, though, the cable deal and the Tech Connect plans shouldn't be looked at as separate discussions. Internet, cable, and phone services are merging quickly; the market is dominated by just two companies, Comcast and SBC. The city needs to reject the Comcast deal, put Tech Connect and the cable franchise on the same track, and start moving aggressively to build a city-controlled system. That's the only way we'll get affordable cable, cheap and universal Internet access, and the economic development that it will spur in a city that ought to be setting the national standard for public control over the world's most important emerging infrastructure. PS Bad signs from Newsom: Just as the city ought to be gearing up to fight the monopolies on the communications front, who is Newsom's latest high-profile commission appointment? Hunter Stern, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union leader who was a PG&E front man in the fight against public power, was just named to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees Muni. Stern is the wrong person for that or any other city job, and the supervisors should reject him.