Three residents representing a class of residents in the three largest neighborhoods in Thompson’s Station have filed a lawsuit against developers, Carbine & Associates and Hood Development, as well as DirecTV and the three Homeowners’ Associations (HOA).
The three subdivisions in question include Tollgate Village, Bridgemore Village and The Fields of Canterbury, which have hundreds of homes combined.
Courtney Cates, Brian Stover and Jason Miller, who live in the neighborhoods, are being represented by Branstetter, Stranch, and Jennings PLLC. The firm also is representing a group of homeowners from each neighborhood.
According to Benjamin Gastel with the law firm, “residents tried to work with Thompson’s Station to obtain relief from the Crystal Clear situation which offers a limited capacity for communication services."
"They couldn’t retroactively change things and this is an attempt for the neighborhoods to change them and get relief they couldn’t otherwise obtain,” he said.
Gastel said the basis of the lawsuit is to end Crystal Clear’s “illegal attempt at a monopoly. It is a violation of Federal law and the FCC, which does not allow for a sole provider in the geographical area. This will undo the entire relationship.”
The lawsuit says Crystal Clear and DirecTV entered into a contract for telecommunication services. It also says Crystal Clear charged a “premium to homeowners for Internet and TV services, acting as a middleman, which the homeowners believe is unnecessary,” Gastel said.
Also, the suit claims the homeowners “could not contract directly with DirecTV for promotional services and denied the homeowners the ability to receive Internet, phone and TV services from other providers,” Gastel noted. Now, AT&T and Charter Communications offer service in some of the Thompson’s Station neighborhoods.
Carbine and Associates, based in Franklin, developed Tollgate Village and the new Bridgemore Village, which is under construction. Hood Development, based in Nashville, is the developer of The Fields of Canterbury.
When the three subdivisions were built, TV, phone and Internet providers such as Comcast and AT&T did not want to expand their services to Thompson’s Station, so Carbine and Associates installed Crystal Clear, which at the time, provided a state-of-the art communications system for the subdivisions.
However, three years ago, DirecTV said they could no longer utilize the fiber optics for the TV service and homeowners were forced to purchase service from DirectTV directly. According to Sam Carbine with Carbine and Associates, the residents still had to pay Crystal Clear for the basic TV service and pay DirecTV for added services, such as pay-for-view channels and others.
Carbine is being represented by Harwell Howard Hyne Gabbert & Manner, P.C.
Craig Gabbert, with Harwell Howard Hyne Gabbert & Manner, commented initially on the matter.
“Although we cannot yet comment on specifics, Crystal Clear believes many of the assertions plaintiffs have made are just factually wrong, and that the lawsuit has no merit,” he said.
In the past, Carbine has explained Crystal Clear does have a private telecommunications easement (PTE) to allow access for installation, maintenance and repairs of its fiber network.
However, he added Crystal Clear does not have an exclusive agreement with any community based on rules according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Crystal Clear does have a bulk agreement with the HOAs, which is allowed by the FCC. He said this is common across the U.S.
A bulk agreement is a contract with HOAs in which residents participate to allow for a common service at a reduced price.
Carbine said residents who have never lived in a community with the benefits of a bulk agreement have been “confused” by bulk services.
He added most homeowners living in a community with a bulk agreement do not realize that the same services would be at least $50 more per month, if they were not under the bulk agreement. Currently the DirecTV Choice package is $70.99 per month, with no Internet.
Crystal Clear’s base package includes the Choice package and 3/3Mbps of Internet for $65 a month, after the first year. To get 3 Mbps from other providers in the area, it currently costs $54 per month not including modem fees and taxes. Those same services would cost more than $125 per month after their promotional term.
He added being a bulk contract with the HOA is much like the swimming pools, fitness area, or tennis courts in the communities. People may not play tennis or choose to go to the YMCA to work out instead of using the community facilities; however, the resident still has to pay the HOA dues, which cover those amenities.
Also, he said Crystal Clear is billed by DirectTV for the life of the contract once a unit is turned on whether the service is used or not. That contract will end in 2017 and Crystal Clear is already exploring many alternative structures and services.
In 2013, the Thompson’s Station Board of Mayor and Aldermen created a Telecommunications Task Force (TTF) to look into the franchise agreements between the town and Crystal Clear and what the town could do to end or amend those agreements, some of which were to end in 2015.
Alderman Brandon Bell, then a citizen, headed the TTF and issued a comprehensive report to the BOMA about the franchise agreements and what could be done about the problems with the services which were being reported by the citizens. The citizens said the Internet was slow and they were unhappy with having to pay Crystal Clear for TV service and additionally having to pay DirecTV for what they say is the same service.
Alderman Graham Shepard has been a strong voice against the franchise agreements and has repeatedly talked about them on his online blog entitled, “The T.S. Review” (www.tsreview.org).
He said in an Oct. 1 video post “the residents are not confused because they’re getting a raw deal and they know it. Crystal Clear sets prices and provides service levels at its sole discretion and then forces people to pay for them whether they want them or not. That’s a raw deal. The residents know it and they’re not confused.”
He added the reason Crystal Clear has PTE is it gives them a “monopoly and keeps the competitors out.”
With the franchise agreement ending in 2017, Crystal Clear has the opportunity to work with the Thompson’s Station or it can go straight to the state for a new franchise agreement. Carbine said he would go to the state directly for the agreement.
Shepard said he wants Carbine to go to the state, so Thompson’s Station does not have to give legitimacy to Crystal Clear’s “monopoly, which is illegal.”
The suit also includes a complaint Carbine and Hood garnered additional revenue by forcing the residents to pay for services, whether they used them or not.
The lawsuit will have its initial case management conference on March 21 before Judge Aleta Arthur Trauger, a U.S. federal judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. That will be the day Judge Trauger sets the schedule for the remainder of the case.