, Salem, MA

March 25, 2013

Peabody's calling all cable providers

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — When it comes to cable providers, Peabody isn’t feeling the love. And Mayor Ted Bettencourt wants to do something about it.

The city has been served for some time by Comcast, but that relationship not only has the mayor casting an eye elsewhere, he’s not alone. Further, the dizzying changes in technology have some wondering just what would constitute competition.

In a press release, the mayor says residents have asked him “on an almost daily basis why Peabody is not home to any alternative providers of cable TV, high-speed Internet and telephone service.” He’s got a simple answer — namely that no other provider wants to come here to compete with Comcast.

“We’re a welcoming community,” argues C. Milton Burnett of the city’s Cable Commission. “We had sent a letter to Verizon. ... There is a heavily marketed product in Verizon FiOS, which serves a number of communities.”

The letter, delivered last September, flatly asked Verizon to bring its FiOS service into Peabody. But Verizon replied that the company’s expansion had paused.

“Verizon has made it very clear,” said company spokesman and former Salem Mayor Stan Usovicz, “we have a number of obligations in the communities that we currently serve to complete our build-out there.” There are no active plans to continue expansion into other cities or towns, he said.

Left out in the cold along with Peabody are communities including Salem, Beverly and Manchester-by-the-Sea.

It’s frustrating, Bettencourt indicates in his statement, because residents have seen the television commercials for products like and including FiOS, and they believe they would get a better deal if the service locates here. Moreover, the mayor said, people are accustomed to having a choice whenever they shop for anything.

The mayor’s solution is to court “niche providers,” smaller organizations providing cable alternatives. As a candidate, Burnett mentions RCN, which provides cable to Boston and has flirted with Peabody over the years.

The advantage of multiple providers is clear to Danvers Assistant Town Manager Diane Norris. Her town has had FiOS for some time.

“Years ago, we had complaints all the time about cable television,” she said. But now that FiOS competes with Comcast, those concerns have faded.

It isn’t all about money either, Norris said. Not only does FiOS offer a different price structure, it offers entertainment packages that vary from what Comcast sells. The need to sign onto packages that give customers television channels they don’t want in order to get the ones they do has long frustrated cable subscribers.

Which is not to say that money doesn’t matter. With its complex billing made still more opaque when cable television, Internet and phone service are bundled together, cable companies have had users watching like hawks for mysterious price increases. For example, Burnett points out, some months ago, Comcast offered at no charge small electronic devices designed to allow limited cable reception on secondary televisions.

More recently, he continued, users may have found $1.99 per box added to their bills.

Less than a decade ago, the complaint about cable television was that viewers were forced to take whatever was given to them. Over time, however, alternatives have grown. Satellite television, DirectTV and Dish Network are available. More recently, users have found they can bypass their cable provider via the Internet, giving access to an array of movies and television programs.

The possibility of new technology making cable television less attractive might be one reason for the reluctance to invest in communities like Peabody.

“In some cities, they’re doing away with cable,” said Yu Hu, an assistant professor of marketing at Salem State University. New York City and San Francisco are two places where secondary providers are challenging companies like Time Warner.

Netflix provides movies and more, all available in high-definition via a wireless router, an Internet connection, and a device like a PlayStation or Xbox. It’s the same way Hulu Plus offers network television shows, Hu said, albeit on a slightly delayed basis.

More difficult to find is sports programming, for example NESN. But Hu notes that there are already ways to get some sports programming.

“You do need to have the Internet connection,” he said, which often comes via companies like Verizon and Comcast.

It’s all a far cry from the days not so long ago when a fuzzy image reached viewers via rabbit ears. Bettencourt is still eager to get a better picture.

“We recognize the benefit of having more than one provider of cable, phone and Internet service,” he writes. “If another provider sees a market in Peabody, we are all ears.”