West Bloomfield battling Comcast for fiber optic system
West Bloomfield Township — Township officials seek to stop a cable company from interfering with its I-Net system used as part of the community’s delivery of emergency response and police, fire, water and sewer services.
At issue is a dedicated closed fiber optic system and equipment that was partly paid for by Comcast under a franchise agreement with the township which expired Oct. 1.
Beginning this past July, the cable company claimed ownership of the Comcast Institutional Network, I-Net for short, which is regularly used for telecommunications between township offices.
Comcast said I-Net is its private property and wants the township to pay a user fee for access or find an alternative system. Comcast has said it will permit the township to use the I-Net system for free until the end of this year.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Oakland Circuit Court against Comcast of Colorado/Florida/Michigan/New Mexico/Pennsylvania/Washington, the township maintains the network was installed after its cable company — MediaOne — offered to fund $400,000 of costs to induce the township to enter into a franchise agreement. That franchise was later transferred to Comcast in 2000 and renewed this year until 2025.
Attorneys for the township or the cable company could not be reached for comment Friday.
The court file contained a letter Leslie Brogan, senior director of government and regulatory affairs in Comcast’s Heartland Region Office in Lansing, sent to township officials, dated Sept. 4, in which Brogan outlined changes and how since January 1, 2007, Comcast has “voluntarily allowed the township to continue free use of the I-Net to-date.
“Since its construction, and certainly since 2007, the township has received considerable benefit from its access to free high-speed bandwidth transport as well as interconnectivity, benefits not provided by Comcast’s competitors.
“At this time, concurrent with the renewal of the franchise, we are requiring that the I-Net be transitioned to conventional commercial agreement, or that the township find an alternative solution to meet its telecommunications needs ... Before, during and after this transition, Comcast will continue to own the I-Net as part of its cable system. We disagree with your assertion that it has somehow been given over to the public trust ... ”
Brogan could not be reached for comment Friday.
The township said it is illegal to use public funds for private commercial purposes and insists there was never any reference to a cable company ever retaining ownership of the I-Net and said it has paid all other costs including upgrades and maintenance of the system which is “imperative to public safety operations of the township and will impact the township’s budget which is currently being prepared for 2016.”
Mark Kowalsky of the township cable commission stressed the I-Net is separate from the consumer cable service used by some of its nearly 65,000 residents but is still “heavily used” by the schools and the township. He and other members of the cable commission who were contacted by The Detroit News on Friday, including township trustee Larry Brown, declined to discuss the pending litigation.
The township not only seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction against Comcast, it wants the company’s act declared a “wrongful conversion of township property” and to be awarded three times the actual damages plus costs and attorney fees.
The lawsuit is assigned to Judge Daniel O’Brien.