Comcast is signing papers left and right with local towns, to prepare for a new option for local cable television customers. The Bethany Beach Town Council is preparing to host a public hearing and vote on franchise agreements, while South Bethany just held a public hearing, and Selbyville has officially approved the franchise agreement for Comcast to provide cable television.

By law, these are not exclusive agreements. So Mediacom — currently the only player in town — can continue to provide service, and Comcast can now compete for customers, too.

The local governments have been waiting for Comcast to expand into the area to provide more options, and they hope, more competition and better service. And after years of requests and market research, it looks like Comcast has finally deemed south coastal Delaware worthy of investment.

“Franchise agreements are nonexclusive under federal law. The reason you don’t have more providers coming in is it’s just very costly to build out the network,” Chris Comer, a Comcast director of government affairs, told the Selbyville Town Council on Nov. 2. “It can cost up to $100,000 per mile just to build a network. It’s just very cost-prohibitive, capital intensive.”

Although the company hopes to get the infrastructure laid as quickly as possible, it would likely take one or two years.

“The biggest challenge is we don’t own any poles. We have to attach to existing poles owned by providers,” such as Delmarva Power, Verizon and so forth. “We have to pay rent to be on their poles,” which also means paying for any repairs or upgrades that may be discovered as being necessary in that process, Comer told South Bethany officials on Nov. 4.

“So that’s kind of the unknown variable through all of this. We hope that will take a couple of months,” Comer said. After that, “We anticipate completing the build within 12 to 18 months of getting all necessary permits and approval.

The South Bethany Town Council will vote on the Comcast agreement on Nov. 13 at 10 a.m., after receiving comments at the Nov. 4 public hearing. They are also in the midst of a contract extension with Mediacom as they continue negotiating for better service.

The Bethany Beach Town Council will discuss the Comcast and Mediacom contracts simultaneously this month, first at a public hearing on Nov. 13 at 1 p.m., conducted via Zoom teleconference, and in a vote at their regular council meeting on Nov. 20 at 2 p.m.

The Mediacom and Comcast agreements only relate to cable TV, but those companies also provide internet service.

According to Selbyville’s 10-year contract, Comcast will pay 5 percent of annual gross revenues to the Town for the right to operate there.

When asked by South Bethany officials about pricing, Comer said, “I haven’t done a side-by-side. … We believe we can compete on price, but we also believe we can compete on the quality of our product and depth of our product offering.”

But the residents emphasized that service quality, not just price, is the concern.

“We’ve heard that from a lot of residents, which is why we’re looking to expand into the marketplace,” Comer said.

After dealing with frustrating and sometimes spotty service at the beach, residents have long pushed for better internet service from Mediacom. Over the years, various towns have requested shorter cable contract periods, conducted public surveys and even retained national law firms in telecom issues to represent them. This year, they’ve really pushed for improvements to the system.

“We are hopeful that Mediacom’s recent work in Bethany Beach results in improved service. However, if Bethany Beach is receiving the best product Mediacom is capable of delivering, the solution is to find another telecom provider willing to invest in the infrastructure to bring better service to our community,” according to an announcement by the Town.

Comcast already provides internet at various locations in the county, and they provide cable TV in pockets within the area, such as to the Sea Colony development. As for the physical service line to Selbyville, Comer said, “It’s hybrid. So [we lay] fiber to a node that serves the community. A group of homes would be fed off that. We try to take fiber close to the home.” The fewer homes sharing a single node, the better the service.

It would be nice to have a physical customer service location closer than Lewes or Ocean City, Md., said Selbyville Council Member Rick Duncan, suggesting one of the town’s shopping centers as a public-facing location. But customer-service centers have evolved away from that, Comer said, just like banks have gone virtual.

“It’s just the way customers want to interact today, typically, pre-COVID, but now, after that, it’s just going to be a different way of doing business for everyone,” Comer said.

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.