St. Paul to pay Comcast for high-speed cable

The city of St. Paul will pay Comcast more than $2 million to upgrade the data network connecting more than 100 public buildings to high-speed fiber optic cable.

Since 1998, St. Paul has received network service for free from Comcast as part of a larger agreement that allowed the company to provide cable TV to its residents.

But the network was too slow for transmitting surveillance video to the Police Department or providing decent Internet service to library patrons, said Tarek Tomes, the city's chief information officer.

"We're paying zero for a service that really doesn't meet anyone's needs," he said.

Under the deal signed this week, the city also will pay Comcast more than $400,000 a year to provide network service over those connections.

Tomes said the hefty price tag is well below the rates Comcast charges in the private market. The upgraded network will deliver speeds up to 1,600 times faster at some locations, he said.

Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks for the Institute for Local Self Reliance, sees the deal as a rip-off for taxpayers. He argues the city would have been better off building the network itself.

"Comcast overcharges everyone significantly," Mitchell said. "St. Paul has steadfastly refused to take any step in the direction of providing competition to Comcast for reasons that are beyond me."

A few years ago, the city explored the idea of building its own network in collaboration with Ramsey County. Those plans fizzled, and the county recently entered into its own service agreement with Comcast. It agreed to pay $1.4 million up front plus $300,000 a year.

St. Paul will continue to access the Internet through a separate contract with the state of Minnesota, but the upgraded fiber-optic connections will mean faster connections to the web as well as between city buildings.

The fiber optic network deal represents the culmination of a four-year-long negotiation over Comcast's cable TV franchise. The St. Paul City Council today approved a 10-year extension to that agreement, which gives the company the right to use public streets to maintain its network.

The council action will also give Comcast the option to transfer its St. Paul business to a spin-off called GreatLand Connections. Comcast intends to do that to allay anti-trust concerns if it wins federal approval for its proposed merger with Time Warner.

Mayor Chris Coleman recused himself from the negotiations because his brother, Emmett Coleman, is a top lobbyist for Comcast.

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