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Bigger fish gobbles up AT&T

Some rumors are true.

Speculation that the island’s new cable television provider was itself about to be purchased by a rival outfit came true Wednesday, with the announced merger of AT&T Broadband and Pennsylvania-based Comcast.

The announcement came just as AT&T Broadband was completing purchase of the island’s cable television system from Seattle-based Northland, a transaction that AT&T company officials said is unaffected by the merger.

“It won’t have any impact whatsoever,” said Steve Kipp, executive director of communications for AT&T Broadband’s Washington market.

The cable and Internet wing of AT&T, which only a month ago announced its plans to buy cable systems on Bainbridge Island and in North Kitsap, was subsumed in a $72 billion merger that forms a new media conglomerate, AT&T Comcast Corp.

Before the purchase, AT&T Broadband had nearly 14 million cable subscribers, about 1 million of them in Washington, according to published reports.

The new company will boast 22 million subscribers in 41 states, reports said, giving it access to at least 20 percent of American households with its high-speed Internet, cable TV and phone services.

That will include the 5,000 cable customers on Bainbridge Island.

What’s next for island cable customers?

No immediate changes, Kipp said, as the company evaluates the programming, pricing, equipment and infrastructure it has picked up from Northland.

Island cable subscribers will be writing their checks to AT&T Broadband for the foreseeable future, as the merger with Comcast still must pass the scrutiny of federal regulators. Completion of that deal is expected to take nine to 12 months.

Kipp said Thursday that AT&T Broadband will maintain a presence on the island, keeping the former Northland office on High School Road open.

But office staffing there has already been pared back, with five of 13 customer service and technician positions not offered jobs with AT&T. Some of the employees moved on to other jobs with Northland, Kipp said.

“The positions we needed were those front-line, customer-facing positions,” he said.

A week ago, as the Bainbridge Island City Council discussed transfer of the local cable franchise from Northland to AT&T – upon which the sale was said to be contingent – company representatives said they were unaware of any pending sale of AT&T Broadband itself.

But by midweek, reports in national publications suggested that a merger with Comcast was imminent, and the deal was announced Wednesday.

Thursday, city officials said that the merger should have no impact on the amended cable franchise agreement approved by the council last week.

“This sort of a deal, when it’s a merger, it’s hard to imagine what effect it would have,” city Administrator Lynn Nordby said.

The franchise agreement settles a longstanding dispute over utility taxes on island cable operations, and guarantees a community access channel for Bainbridge Island Broadcasting. Other terms of the franchise are to be negotiated over the next 18 months.

An AT&T Broadband official is tentatively slated to speak at the next Bainbridge Economic Council breakfast, to discuss local service and the impact of the merger.

The event will be held at 8:45 a.m. Jan. 2 at the Madison Avenue Retirement Center. The event is open to the public; for information, call 780-9230.

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