HARVARD -- As the town braces for a new switch in cable providers from Charter to Comcast, a working group is hashing out a new contract for next year.

The switch in cable providers, part of a multi-million-customer swap between Charter and Comcast, is one step in Comcast's larger goal of acquiring Time Warner Cable.

Despite cries from the community against Comcast, the switch appears inevitable.

Lack of understanding

Bill Johnson, chair of the Community Cable Access Committee, said there's clearly a lack of understanding in just how much control the town has in the whole process.

"We have no influence over Internet or phone, for either the level of service, type of service or the fees that they charge for that service as a town," he said.

"The second thing that people don't understand is that we have no influence over this Charter and Comcast swap of subscribers," he said. "Our town and every other town in Massachusetts that has Charter will be transferred over as customers to Comcast."

State-regulated rates

Cable TV rates are regulated by the state, Johnson said. The town has no influence over Internet or phone service -- or the rates that come with them.

"We have no interaction with them as a town, and no authority with them as a town, to specify what's done for Internet or what's done for phone over that cable wiring," Johnson said.

Rates will not be affected by the transfer of Charter to Comcast, according to the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable. All towns affected now have about 60 days to hold a public hearing on the transfer and about four months to decide whether to accept or reject it.

But rejecting Comcast's takeover does not leave the field open to many other options.

"There are no other companies who are coming in saying, 'Hey, we want all the customers in Harvard,'" said Town Administrator Tim Bragan.

While the town is negotiating only the cable TV contract, residents can choose to get their Internet or phone service from other providers. But if the service requires use of the cable wire, the company would have to get permission from Charter to use the wiring network.

"Nobody else is going to go over that infrastructure because it's owned and operated by whatever company has it at that time," Bragan said. "I doubt Charter's going to allow anybody else to go over their network."

Negotiating new

contract

While the swap is still in progress, a working group -- including Johnson and Bragan -- is renegotiating a new contract with Charter before the current one expires in January 2015.

When the switch occurs, Comcast will assume the current contract, pending appropriate approval from the town.

"For us it's basically business as usual until the transaction closes," said Charter spokesman Alex Dudley.

Johnson said three topics are under negotiation in the new contract.

The first is a request to upgrade to a fiber optic network and extend it to even more municipal locations, Johnson said. The second is the cost Charter pays to support the local cable access activity in town.

"On an annual basis, they provide money for operating the local cable access activity," Johnson said. "Those monies are passed through to subscribers. That's a very small fee that you see on your bill."

On his monthly bill, Johnson said, that cost is less than one percent of the total.

The group is also negotiating the lump sum of money the town receives for capital purchases, he said. The money is used for buying equipment, such as the kind purchased for the new cable TV studio.

Ten years ago, he said, the town received $80,000 up-front as a capital fund.

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