JOINT AREA CABLE TELEVISION ADVISORY BOARD
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 17, 2001
APPROVAL OF MINUTES at the regular meeting of February 21, 2001: Dr. Ugras asked if there were any amendments and/or changes to the January 17, 2001 minutes. There were none. Dr. Ugras made a motion to approve the January 17, 2001 minutes, which was seconded by James Bowe. Motion carried unanimously.
Members Present: Dr. Joe Ugras, Chairman, James Bowe, Member, Representing Newtown Township, Ernie Bancroft, Member representing the Newtown Borough, Scott Harp, Liaison for Newtown Township and Mark Craig, Liaison for Newtown Borough.
Others Present: Tom Harwood, Public Works Director and Code Enforcement Officer in Newtown Township, Ted Christian, Representative of Comcast and Joe Connors, Chairman of Warminster Cable Board.
CALL TO ORDER: Chairman Joe Ugras called the meeting to order at 7:35 p.m.
1. Election of Officers.
2. Approval of the minutes December 21, 2000
3. Introduction of the liaisons to the Cable Board from Newtown Borough and Tom Harwood.
4. Common utility installations.
5. Comcast Update.
INTRODUCTION OF ERNIE BANCROFT: New Member representing Newtown Borough.
Mr. Ernie Bancroft is a new member to the Joint Cable Committee, acting as a representative for Newtown Borough. Mr. Bancroft has an engineering background.
ELECTION OF OFFICERS: Positions open consist of Chairman, Vice Chairman, who acts as the Chair in the absence of the Chair and Treasurer. The Treasurer's task is a minimum. Due to the absence of two members, the election of officers will be held during the next meeting.
APPROVAL OF THE MINUTES: Dr. Joe Ugras amends the minutes:
(1) Question presented: Tom Harwood was unable to come as a visitor at the December 21, 2000 meeting due to a change in location. Will be amended to read: "Tom Harwood was unable to attend". (2) Charlie Diamond is not the owner of Pitcairn. Take out "is not the owner". Motion was made by James Bowe to approve the minutes which was seconded by Dr. Ugras.
Motion carried unanimously.
COMCAST UPDATE: James Bowe asked Ted Christian to walk the members through the Comcast's Annual Service Report. Mr. Christian indicated that he does not believe he can do this today, but he will review this report and answer any questions at the next meeting.
Dr. Ugras presents a letter, which was written to Joe DiJulio from Newtown Township asking for separation from the government channel from the Newtown, Council Rock Board of Education Channel. Mr. Christian stated that this presently is not an issue because the school district currently is not running, but once the school district is up and running, this will be an issue to discuss.
Ted Christian provides an update regarding the pedestal issue. He stated that he spoke to the Supervisors about the meeting recently held with Newtown Crossing at their annual Board Meeting. It was discussed that the cable company was going back to Newtown Crossing one last time to review the plans to see if there are any last minute things and/or questions they may have. The final completion will depend on the weather, possibly late April.
Another development with the pedestal issue is Tyler Walk. Mr. Christian was not able to obtain the initial drafts of the plans, which will show the number of reductions in the pedestals. As soon as he is able to obtain these plans, he will forward them.
Mr. Harp expressed his appreciation to Comcast, Tom Harwood and everyone involved for resolving the noted problems in Newtown Crossing. He indicated that this was a very good model of government, the homeowners and Cable Board all working together to solve some problems. He further stated that Tom Harwood reviewed the plans on January 3, 2001 and everything went through. Mr. Harp said that he spoke to Joe DiJulio late today, who indicated that as soon as the weather gets nice the construction will commence. Joe DiJulio advised Mr. Harp that he will speak to Mike Angelo, President of Tyler Walk Homeowners Association, and will follow the same scenario in Tyler Walk as Newtown Crossing. This plan will then be performed in The Ridings.
Ted Christian indicated that he appeared at the State Street Committee on December 20, 2000. This is a beautification project, which involves getting the wires down. Comcast was at this meeting with Verizon. The borough is very aware of the potential costs involved in this project. There is a problem of where they can replace this equipment. It was discussed running the equipment down the middle of the street; however, trolley tracts are here that may be rebuilt. It was discussed going down the sidewalk, but then they would have to tear up the sidewalks and there is an issue in ownership of the sidewalks.
Mr. Craig gave some background to the State Street beatification issues. One is the lighting on State Street. The State Street Committee was formed to oversee that part of the project. The State Street Committee noticed when they went on a walk-through that all of the poles in use have only cable and phone, but no electric. Peco is already trenched.
Ted Christian indicated that some of the problems is in an old town there are historical ramifications to consider. It is very difficult to give an estimate on cost and time, because you run into stuff that you are not expecting. Cost and time are the two main factors to consider when applying for a grant. Therefore, this does take time so no one is mislead or they don't shoot too high or too low. This will be a slow process.
Dr. Ugras asked Mr. Christian if he has any news with regard to access of cable to the universities? Ted Christian indicated that he met with the Community College about a separate issue regarding the Council Rock Channel. Ted indicated that all five municipalities are going to share their channel with the Community College. There are still some issues with switching and some technical issues. As far as the other colleges are concerned, Ted indicated that this is a municipality decision and franchiser's call.
Dr. Ugras explained that one of this issues is with LaSalle's channel, 56. The programming being performed is not accessible to the Newtown LaSalle. Can Comcast send the channel and/or share the peg channel to the Newtown Campus, as subscribers to Comcast.
It was further discussed that if the colleges decide to sharing the peg channel, an executive or board will have to decide the sharing times between the channel and the schools.
Dr. Ugras advised Mr. Christian that he would like him to address at the next cable meeting, the sharing issues; an analysis of the service report; how the switching can be done; and how the universities will receive access to the cable itself.
COMMON UTILTIY INSTALLATIONS: Discussions were led by James Bowe and Tom Harwood regarding the challenges and issues presently before the utility companies; specifically, getting the utility companies to have common areas and in dealing with the township when pedestals and other things pop up in our neighborhoods.
Mr. Bowe summarized the objections: as we bring in new technology, we are seeing more and more equipment that is on homeowner's properties throughout the township as well as the borough. We are trying to get a handle on the installment and the location of the equipment. From an operational standpoint, from a safety standpoint and from and aesthetic standpoint. One of the questions is what capabilities do we have as a board or township or borough in making certain requirements, we call "Performance Standard", to specifying to the companies the placement of equipment and how the equipment is to be installed.
This is a new issue that no other municipality has tackled. Mr. Bowe spoke to a representative at Dave Steil's office, who advised that their office is very excited about this issue. They believe that if we can solve this problem in Newtown, this is going to be applied all over the place. We are in new territory and hope that Tom Harwood can provide us with some insight to these issues.
Tom Harwood indicated that with utilities all of the contracts specify that they have to share where possible with other utilities. Presently, with the pedestals, there is no specification as to sharing. Tom indicated that the Townships and the Boroughs in Pennsylvania's municipalities have the authority to control their right-of-away. This has been a Pennsylvania law for many years. This control usually is done through ordinances, which are established as to how you put things (equipment) in the township/borough, i.e. this can be maybe 8 feet off the curb, sometimes it is 10 feet or 50 feet. The point is that the municipality controls what happens between the right-of-way lines. To some extent the utilities have indicated that the Public Utility Commission ("PUC") is whom they answer to. There have been some disputes about township's authority, but the township has a good ordinance, it clearly has the right to dictate where utilities are placed and what regulations will follow. But this must be done reasonably.
Going back to the 60s, the Municipalities Planning Code ("MPC"), which is the planning document that every Pennsylvania County except for home grown cities has to follow, states that underground utilities will prevail. You will see in a lot of towns and residential areas were the lines are ungrounded to poles were lights are hung and that is about it. Mr. Harwood is not certain if it is the demands in degree of performance that is required by technology, but states that what was buried 10 to 15 years ago has appeared to come above the ground. The townships who know that they have the authority to require that those structures, and they are structures, stay below the ground probably have a point in terms of saying you can't bring it out of the ground and that the law says it has to be below the ground. But it has come up and the reasons given is (1) the cable companies will tell you that the underground facilities leak and they do not get good connections and (2) the telephone companies will say that they can not find their equipment when it is snowy. You can use your authority and say you have to put this stuff under the ground. But, what are you going to gain in terms of what is going to happen in terms of the performance of the equipment if you listen to the engineers who put it all together?
A compromise would seem to be a co-location of what has to be underground or in a place out of the way or screened. This is where there has been in the past several years and in particularly with the cable companies who take as much cable necessary to run between the houses and put a tube in the middle. The tubes like the crab boxes that the telephone company's elect are not attractive on new lawns or places where there are no sidewalks. It was decided that something had to be done about this and we do have the authority to control this and the cable company knows this. It is important not be unreasonable about this too.
The plan that Tom Harwood has looked at with Joe DiJulio, Gary Roberts and Dave Smith were great concepts consisting of tubes for pedestals grouped with the electric company's transformers. A sample plan was reviewed of Mill Pond Road looked reasonable. They are re-engineering and re-doing the job over. From what Mr. Harwood understood was that they were going with what Suburban Cable had before which was inadequate, so now there is an opportunity re-engineer the whole deal and spread some of this equipment out. They are planning on taking the existing location of the electric boxes and telephone boxes and place them there.
What the Code Department is doing on new construction is asking the utilities to show them comprehensively water, sewer, electric, gas and cable, were it is going to be as to the right-of-way. There are standards in term of depth and relationship horizontally. You can't say, but you can say you shouldn't be putting a water line on the same side as the gas line. There are separation schemes that at the right-a-way you can put thing along side of it, but you have to look at where the other utilities are placed like the telephone lines, cable lines and so forth. We are requiring that the street lights, cable lines electric lines, Bell Atlantic lines and gas lines all be shown as to where they are supposed to be placed and how close they are in conformance with the final plan.
There are steps taken if things are not done properly. The Codes Department will call them first and give them a warning. If nothing happens in a couple of days, the policy is to send a notice out advising them that they are in violation and have the opportunity to appeal to the Codes Committee. From the Committee it will eventually can go to the supervisors, but they have to follow the step by step process. If they do not comply, the Codes Department files a citation. Usually at this point someone in the management gets worried when they get this letter issued from the District Justice, that says you have to answer to the court and have a hearing. Usually this is resolved before this goes to court.
This is the point when they say, what do I have to do to fix this. The Code Department will tell them to come in and file for a permit. When the Code Department reviews their plan and determines if this is the place where the equipment should be placed. The objective is to get the equipment moved to where it is less intrusive. They also look to the technical side and somehow we may end up with some sort of resolution. The utility company will now know, when they make an agreement with the Codes Department how this is going to be handled from this point on.
One other thing that we want to avoid is slowing the process down. There are many times when they put these boxes in because they are having some sort of service outage. We do not want to make it such that we are the ones slowing the process down or getting this stuff fixed. Mr. Harwood agrees that they need to request a permit, but we need to educate the utilities companies that this process they need to go through.
Mr. Craig's feeling would be that Comcast is taking a proactive stand saying I want to prevent further outages. They have been going forward with the plan. It is his guess that if you have an outage that has resulted from one of the underground vaults flooding is transitory. If it is not working today, the chances are the storms that cause it is not going to be here tomorrow. And if it only happens very rarely so it is not something that needs to be resolved tomorrow, it is something that needs to be resolved sometime in the near future before the next hundred-year storm. Most of these outages do not happen with that much regularity.
Mr. Harwood said most of the ordinances say that if there is an imminent threat to life, safety or health that the public authorities can take emergency repair to be made by a telephone company or anyone else. If they can show that that is the case with the one that Scott Harp is going to show them tomorrow then the Codes Department is not in the position to do anything about that. But there are others that are the type Mr. Craig described where there is a complaint once a month when it is foggy and so they come to fix it. This is not imminent threat to life, safety and health. They are just making a repair. It is easier to work on these things when they are above ground.
Mr. Craig said it was definitely a service issue, because you are in business to provide good service, but it is to improve service or make it easier on the provider?
Mr. Harp indicated that it wasn't until the pedestal issue arose with Comcast that all of these other issues and observations were made. From the field trips taken that all of these issues arose or presented themselves. This is an opportunity to get these things in places and centrally located.
Ted Christian asked if it was better to do this on a case per case basis or take 50 worse eye sores and work from there. James Bowe indicated that he believes it is better to start with a standard, but there is always going to be cases that the standard just doesn't fit a particular application. That is when variances should be included. We need to develop an agreement between all of the utilities on how to handle this.
Mr. Harwood said the municipal authorities have to agree to set their authority over the right-of-way and deal with conditions that have come about through the age and changing technology.
Ernie Bancroft asked if we looked at how our surrounding municipalities are dealing with these issues. Mr. Bowe indicated that no one is dealing with these issues right now. Comcast basically takes care of those areas. When Comcast took over Suburban, Comcast made an operational decision that the equipment is easier to take care of and it holds up better when it is above ground. Comcast has consistently done this in all of the communities that he has seen where they are running it on ground. To our south we have Flowers Mill where everything is completely underground, including the equipment in these underground pedestals which are flush mounted vaults. These vaults have no bottom in them and they are designed in such a way that water will drain out.
Mr. Craig indicated that Dave Steil's office is very interested in this issue as it falls within the whole Suburban sprawl and aesthetics of suburban living.
Mr. Harwood said one of the alternatives can be, let's put it this way, the way Comcast did their work down at Newtown Crossing. They have their above ground facilities co-located with existing telephone and electric company transformers. This seemed to be acceptable to the residence. The point is if we are going to insist on all underground that is one thing. In the instances where they can co-locate above ground to someone's yard and move it over, can we assume that that is an acceptable solution to these problems or are we looking at going totally underground with everything where everything has to be replaced?
Mr. Bowe indicated that he would like to have everything underground, but at the same token that would create a hardship on the utilities. Issue is who bares the cost? One solution is co-locating another situation is as we look at the solution of co-location and what do we do when we have another utility come in such as RCN. Does this mean they get to put in a pedestal. We need to address this issue to. How many pedestals are we going to have?
Mr. Harwood said if we are going to have some sort of joint effort here, there should be some agreement on whether it is totally underground for new or re-location with co-location under acceptable circumstances.
Mr. Bowe believes Mr. Harwood's third location is the most viable for right now. New developments, we may request all underground. We also need to look at why is it reasonable to place underground utilities underground in Flowers Mills. Is it because of the geographic make-up of that area? Here, if we dig a hole underground it is going to fill with water and stay there.
Mr. Harwood indicated that Comcast's plans are much better than in the past. The only suggestion he has to the plans is that they are clearer when mapping property lines.
Mr. Harwood further notes that the borough is a little different. The houses are much closer and the front yards are smaller. Mr. Craig indicated that they only place in the borough that has issues similar to the township is Washington Village.
Mr. Craig indicated that with Newtown Crossing this was a true rebuild. The issue is that a majority of the pedestal boxes are not being put in on rebuilds and this is the opportunity to set a precedent on rebuilds. How are we going to deal with the policy on existing boxes? Because they have not performed a rebuilt, but they just brought the cable up. This means they need to rewire.
Mr. Harwood said the cable company made this point when they were going through this issue six months ago. That stated they were doing repair maintenance and this does not fall under the requirement for securing a permit. It was their agreement that you may be doing that but you are placing a structure. The definition for a structure is any man made object that is placed on the ground. So, this cleared this issue.
Mr. Craig said they did not obtain permits in the borough it was considered a repair. Mr. Harwood said that some of the utility companies are not familiar with zoning ordinances or zoning codes. They always work on the right a ways. The problem is now this is not okay, because there now is above ground surfaces that people are not happy about and the utility companies now have to come to the reality of the fact that the municipalities still control this and have something to say about what goes on with this right-a-way.
Dr. Ugras said we can evaluate model 3 and standardizing the co-location standard. What should that standard be and how do we describe it to the utility companies or what is the expectation for putting in this units.
One way to do this is to look at the issues that we all might have with the built in boxes and look to Tom Harwood on describing that. The second issue is how do you get the utility companies to comply with the standard. (1) When they replace not repair the structure, this is when you can enforce it and (2) whether or not we can give a time-line and say by five years we want this to be standardized or co-location. Do we get the utilities to agree to a time-line where this co-location would be placed.
Tom Harwood said usually what would happen, as with Comcast, we will know now because they have reengineered their system. That reengineered plan is going to be the basis for a new system in effect. So they are working with a strategy and a plan and if they are able to see that will be the basis for how permits get issued or don't get issued. What will happen is Comcast will say, if you give us our permit, we will put the box over along side of PECO. The second time, the same thing and pretty soon they will get used to the idea that as long as you put the boxes along side of PECO and out of the way, you will get your permit without a hassle.
Mr. Harp said from here we will perform some tests and follow up on this next month and keep the borough and township officials informed.
Issue is who has precedence on location. It was discussed that PECO or electric would be the starting point. There are certain engineering standards with water service and gas, which will prevail. This is also were streetlights get into difficulty. If water is on one side the streetlights are on the other. They can not be on the same side. It is the surface issues that have to fight it out.
Dr. Ugras said we will discuss the test issue to be run and will advise.
OTHER BUSINESS: Scott Harp indicated that back in November, he asked Fred Polner to send a letter to Michael Kane because he wanted a construction update and time line on what is going on with RCN. Mr. Harp has not heard anything to date. Fred Polner sent another letter, January 15, 2001. Mr. Harp said we are going to talk to everyone we can because RCN is going through some changes and we want to make sure that they know that we are very interested and excited about them coming here.
Mr. Craig advised that Comcast is going to announce on April 1, 2001 another rate increase for at home cable modem. He received a letter in the mail a few days ago about the increase. Mr. Harp stated this is why 3 years ago, Dr. Ugras and himself started this committee to try to control the costs of cable. He would really like to see competition come in. This is a big reason why RCN should be coming in. We want to do everything we can to bring RCN in.
Jim Bowe addressed how are we going to handle two cable companies in the township. Mr. Harp indicated that from the Newtown Crossing experience is to have them submit their plans in advance to all of their homeowner associations. When Mr. Harp spoke to Mr. Kane (RCN) four or five months ago, he said it was their intention to meet with the homeowner associations and submit their plans for approval before performing any work.
Dr. Ugras said we have two problems: (1) Is RCN coming; and (2) if they come, what will we do to the vaults. We want RCN to come but we don't want to cause a problem with two pedestals. Jim indicated that he would rather see two vaults than two pedestals. We can't say, Comcast you can do pedestal, but RCN you have to do vaults. Mr. Craig indicated that this is where the permit issue can become this issue. Comcast owns the pedestals.
Mr. Harp said he could speak with Stephen Harris or Fred Polner and see what, if any, options we may have. Mr. Bowe said maybe we can give them an option that they can have a common pedestal or they can have their individual vaults. The fear with this option, discussed by Mr. Harp, is that RCN can decide not to come to the township. Mr. Harp will check into any legal aspects. He has a call into Mr. Kane and his boss and approach the subject with them.
ADJOURNMENT Motion was made by Dr. Joe Ugras to adjourn the meeting, which was seconded by Jim Bowe.
Motion carried unanimously.