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Comcast seeks to purchase Southern Vermont Cable

Owner of four-employee cable company looks to retire

Additional reporting by Jeff Potter. Public documents regarding the application for a certificate of public good can be found at the Public Utilities Commission’s web portal, epuc.vermont.gov.

—With an agreement for a sale in hand, two companies await state approval for the sale of a small independent cable company to an international telecommunications juggernaut with multiple franchises in the state. Pennsylvania-based Comcast and Southern Vermont Cable, headquartered in Bondsville, have filed joint paperwork with the state Public Utility Commission (PUC), which, as part of the state’s regulatory process, must approve the sale and amend Comcast’s state-issued Certificate of Public Good (CPG).Next, Southern Vermont Cable must obtain regulatory approvals from the PUC to transfer its assets to Comcast.Comcast will then seek a CPG covering the former Southern Vermont Cable service area.

Retirement after 32 years

—Early public comment recorded on the PUC website shows a deep skepticism of the sale and sorrow at the replacement of a small business with a multinational media conglomerate that serves 21.4 million customers in 39 states and the District of Columbia.“We’re all being strangled by massive multinational corporations piece by piece,” exhorted Eli K. Coughlin-Galbraith of Brattleboro in his public comment on the docket. “Fight it. Fight it any way you can. Don’t let this one go.”But Ernie Scialabba, Southern Vermont Cable’s owner, said that he is approaching retirement, and that was a factor in his decision to sell.For 32 years, his small company has operated around the clock every day of the year. He’s enjoyed serving his customers, but the business has become a lot of work.“This business is changing so fast,” he said.Fifteen years ago, if people lost their TV in a storm, “they’d read a book,” Scialabba joked. Now, the internet is deeply laced into everyone’s lives, and “you always worry about the next outage” as a telecommunications operator, he said.Also, technology upgrades happen so often that it is hard for a small company to keep up, he said. Gone are the days where a company can upgrade its system every 10 or 20 years.“Now, they’re endless,” Scialabba said.The constantly changing technology also requires more customer and technical support than he feels his small four-employee company can provide.“The technology is changing faster than the customer can understand, too,” he added.Going forward, Southern Vermont would need a bigger customer base to finance the technology and customer service.A standard industry measurement for viability of a cable system is an average of 50 or 60 customers per mile, he said. The small Windham County towns that SVC serves have 20 customers per mile — at most.

From side gig to retirement

—Scialabba said he started the company as a part-time job 32 years ago.Southern Vermont Cable started out serving 320 customers in Newfane and Putney, originally served by Gateway Cablevision. When the company decided to sell, Scialabba, an employee at the time, bought the territory.For the early years, he worked the small business part-time on the weekends. Now, Southern Vermont Cable serves 2,450 customers in Dummerston, Jamaica, Newfane, Putney, and Townshend.The company also has permission to provide service in Brattleboro, Brookline, Dover, Marlboro, Wardsboro, and Westminster but currently does not have any subscribers in those towns.According to its website, the company launched its multi-tier broadband internet service in 2003.“I’ve really enjoyed serving our customers for over 32 years,” he said. “We kind of have a family.”Scialabba didn’t comment on the sale itself.“We’re just worrying about taking care of our customers today,” he said.

A statewide reach

—According to paperwork filed with the PUC, Comcast holds a CPG to provide service in 197 cities, towns, and gores in Vermont. Of these, 154 municipalities have active subscribers, including five in Windham County. The company serves more than 105,500 customers in Vermont, according to a deposition of Daniel M. Glanville, a vice-president for regulatory affairs for Comcast, filed with the application.Comcast does not have a CPG to provide service in Dover, Newfane, Putney, and Townshend. Acquiring the rights to Southern Vermont Cable’s service area would provide the company with the opportunity to reach new customers.Kristen L. Roberts, Comcast’s vice president for communications in western New England, offered a statement on the potential acquisition.“We look forward to being able to offer faster broadband speeds and a wider array of choices for video, voice, home security and automation, and mobile services as well as Comcast Business products and services to more consumers in the Green Mountain State,” she wrote.In its filing with the state, Comcast contended that the sale will improve access to high-speed internet and other media services in the towns previously served by Southern Vermont Cable.

BCTV to continue providing PEG service

—One outstanding question: what this sale could mean for local community-access channels such as Brattleboro Community Television, which is carried by both Comcast and Southern Vermont Cable.Last year, funding questions arose for public, educational and governmental (PEG) access chanels across the U.S. Historically, these community access stations receive funding through the 1984 Cable Act.This act authorized fees on cable companies for their use of the public airwaves. BCTV receives payments from both Comcast and Southern Vermont Cable in accordance to statute.In its filings for the sale, Comcast outlined that it would continue payments for PEG access, receiving payments from Southern Vermont Cable. The company noted that it has a good working relationship with BCTV and would continue its current obligations to fund the station.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #543 (Wednesday, January 8, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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