Loudoun supervisors are urged not to renew cable franchise agreement

In a video clip, a TV screen in a Loudoun County living room plays an episode of the NBC show “30 Rock.” Actress Tina Fey walks down a hallway, and suddenly the image halts, her face frozen mid-sentence. The screen flickers, then dissolves into pixels.

The clip is one of dozens filmed by homeowners from the Southern Walk subdivision in Ashburn and submitted to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Residents say they rarely watch television without some kind of interruption — static, a frozen screen — and they are desperate to sway county leaders not to renew a franchise agreement with OpenBand, a broadband telecommunications company that serves 4,700 homes in eastern Loudoun.

“OpenBand was marketed as faster, better, cheaper,” said Erika Hodell-Cotti, president of the Southern Walk Homeowners Association. “I can’t say that any of that marketing is true.”

OpenBand has been the sole provider of broadband cable services in several neighborhoods in Broadlands and Lansdowne as a result of a deal with the communities’ homeowners associations. In 2001, when the associations were still controlled by Burke-based developer Van Metre Companies, Van Metre gave OpenBand the exclusive right to lay fiber-optic cables beneath the manicured lawns of the brand-new communities, and OpenBand invested more than $20 million to create the cable infrastructure.

As a result of the exclusive property easements established in the deal, other cable providers such as Comcast and Verizon are unable to gain access to the property to lay their equipment.

After years of frustration and complaints to county officials, the contentious issue has come to a head. In May, the association filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria alleging that the company’s contract with the developer violated federal communications law. County leaders sent a formal request to Virginia State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II to conduct an antitrust investigation into OpenBand’s business operations.

At a public hearing last month, dozens of residents urged county leaders to deny the franchise agreement. None spoke in favor of the renewal.

Mitchell Brecher of Greenberg Taurig, an attorney for OpenBand, assured county leaders that the OpenBand’s system is “state of the art.” Brecher said that the company had recently sent out mailers with postcards requesting feedback and that it received mostly positive responses. A technical audit by county staff members also showed generally positive results.

“That technical study produced a very flattering, favorable report on the status of the OpenBand network,” Brecher said. “The company does the best it can to deliver the highest quality service it can.”

Hodell-Cotti testified that OpenBand quarterly reports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the company received an average of 2,350 “trouble tickets” per month — meaning two out of three customers logged complaints. By comparison, Verizon and Comcast received complaints from less than 1 percent of their much-larger customer base each month, Hodell-Cotti said.

In an interview, OpenBand spokeswoman Sharon Hawkins said the numbers that Hodell-Cotti presented to the board are “false information.” Hawkins also cited quarterly reports showing that OpenBand had typical monthly totals of 200 to 300 trouble tickets in 2009 and 2010.

Hawkins said a “trouble ticket” was a general term that applies to any customer call regarding cable service. Unlike larger cable providers, she said OpenBand does not specifically identify service calls, when technicians are dispatched to customers’ homes.

“Comparing the two measures, even with accurate numbers, is apples-to-oranges,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins also said that the county’s technical report found that some customers refused to allow OpenBand access to their homes when the company offered to troubleshoot problems or conduct testing.

“We’re not a perfect system. We don’t claim to be. But it’s a strong system,” Hawkins said. “It’s not a constantly failing system, and the technical report shows that.”

At the public hearing, several county supervisors empathized with the frustrations of the more than 30 speakers. Chairman Scott K. York (I-At Large) referenced the homemade DVDs that homeowners gave to board members demonstrating the extent of the TV service problems.

“I have watched them,” York said. “And quite frankly, it would be all I could do to resist from using my hammer to rearrange my television if I saw that quality of service.” The remark drew cheers from residents.

To avoid frequent static and pixelated TV screens, residents said, they have limited options. Some have purchased DirecTV, and more than 600 satellite dishes have popped up throughout neighborhoods served by OpenBand, Hodell-Cotti said. But residents must pay for those services in addition to the OpenBand charges — about $155 per month — that are bundled into their association fees.

John Mileo, vice president of the Lansdowne Village Greens Homeowners Association, urged the supervisors to give his community the ability to choose an alternative service provider.

“Remember as you all vote on this issue, you will be doing something that the residents of Southern Walk and Lansdowne do not have the right to do,” he said. “You will be exercising your right to make a choice, yes or no. Give us that same right when it comes to choosing cable TV service.”

County leaders said they were confused by the disparity between the positive results of the technical report and the overwhelmingly negative testimony of OpenBand customers. Supervisor Lori L. Waters (R-Broad Run) asked county staff members to gather information on the matter.

“Something seems amiss still,” Waters said. “How can you have a system with so many complaints coming in monthly . . . yet not have a technical report that captures all of that?”

In addition, the board said that the company’s franchise agreement lapsed two years ago but that the county has not charged OpenBand the $500-per-day fine for the lapsed contract.

York asked staff members to look into the issue, saying he didn’t understand why penalty fees were included in a contract if they would not be collected. He suggested that perhaps the county could collect the fees, which would now total more than $300,000, and return them to the Southern Walk and Lansdowne homeowners associations, a proposal that was met with enthusiastic applause.

The board agreed to refer the proposal to the county’s Finance and Government Services committee for further review.

OpenBand has filed a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit. A hearing in the case is scheduled for July 22.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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