An agreement to renew Comcast's cable-television franchise in unincorporated King County would reserve more channels for government, education and nonprofit programming than a...

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An agreement to renew Comcast’s cable-television franchise in unincorporated King County would reserve more channels for government, education and nonprofit programming than a controversial agreement that was negotiated but set aside last year.

However, some critics believe the agreement in principle — which comes up for a vote today by the Metropolitan King County Council — does too much for the company and too little for the public.

Under the five-year agreement, the company would give the county what one observer called a “signing bonus” of $1.2 million for making concessions on public-television programming and how data is sent and received between Internet providers and users.

Cable-television customers would pay less in fees for public, educational and government purposes; those fees would drop from the current $1 a month to 55 cents per month over the final three years of the deal.

King County Councilwoman Jane Hague, who supports the agreement, said it will give the county and other agencies the option to put noncommercial programming on 18 channels and to use 6 megahertz of data “bandwidth” when Comcast programming becomes entirely digital.

“That bandwidth is just like gold,” said Hague, R-Kirkland.

The expanded bandwidth, which equates to broader access to Comcast’s fiber-optic network, could be used to create eight to 10 more digital cable channels, offer high-definition television or operate “data-enhanced” video.

Hearing today

The Metropolitan King County Council is scheduled to hold a hearing and vote today on an agreement renewing Comcast’s cable-television franchise in unincorporated parts of the county. The meeting is at 1:30 p.m. in the County Council chambers on the 12th floor of the King County Courthouse, 516 Third Ave., Seattle.

Data-enhanced video could allow viewers of a King County Council meeting, for instance, to download the text of an ordinance while watching the council debate the measure.

The 18 potential channels are fewer than the 25 possible in the current franchise agreement. Only nine channels are currently used.

Hague also touted Comcast’s willingness to let its customers exchange data, such as e-mail messages, directly with government and nonprofit organizations through an arrangement known as “peering.”

Peering, which traditionally does not involve any cash payments, allows users of one data network to exchange information with users of another network directly, rather than paying to route their data through intermediary carriers.

Without so-called peering, an e-mail message sent from downtown Seattle to Bellevue could be routed at higher cost through San Francisco, New York or elsewhere.

But critics of the franchise agreement say it is a retreat from the much bolder peering provisions of the existing agreement. That agreement allows for-profit members of the Seattle Internet Exchange to peer with Comcast.

Seattle Internet Exchange members say the company has failed to honor their requests for peering arrangements.

The County Council was on the verge of approving a Comcast franchise renewal a year ago, but advocates of free peering and public-access television persuaded the council to review and renegotiate the agreement.

The agreement now before the council provides more potential channels for public, educational and government (PEG) programming than last year’s failed deal, but it does nothing to satisfy proponents of free and open peering. For-profit Internet service providers could connect with Comcast for a fee.

Jeff Sterling, who helped King County negotiate its existing franchise agreement with Comcast predecessor AT&T Broadband, said the new agreement would reward the cable company for failing to meet its peering obligation under the existing contract.

“The little guys are getting squeezed out of the market by the phone company and the cable company,” Sterling said. “This is just another nail in the coffin for the smaller Internet service providers that really are here to provide the support and keep the money in the local economy. It’s very sad.”

Comcast spokesman Steve Kipp said last January that the company still intended to peer with Seattle Internet Exchange members, but that peering had been delayed because of issues related to a corporate merger.

Kipp said Friday the company would have no comment on the pending franchise agreement until the County Council has acted on it.

Hague said the county might have found itself in litigation if it had tried to require Comcast to provide peering under the current contract.

The new agreement, she said, is a good deal both for nonprofits and commercial ventures. “If you are a nonprofit, you can essentially have open access for free, and if you are a commercial vendor you can have it for a small price. I think everybody wins.”

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or