Protesters target Comcast in San Francisco in 2005. The cable company also draws complaints in Cambridge in 2010, as its contract is renegotiated with the city. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

In renegotiating the city’s cable television contract with Comcast, it’s not easy to understand what is on the table.

The lineup of channels, rates charged subscribers and whether there are senior discounts, all top subjects for complaints heard by city councillors and the city’s Consumer’s Council, aren’t negotiable, and to a large extent, neither is what money is returned by the company for public uses. Already, 5 percent of city residents’ subscriptions come back in the form of aid for Cambridge Community Television and other municipal cable offerings.

“There are extreme limitations,” said City Manager Robert W. Healy during an April 7 meeting of the City Council’s Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee. “I know the subscribers have their issues, but if rates are off the table and senior discounts are off the table, then there’s little left but quality of the picture to negotiate.”

The chairwoman of the committee, Henrietta Davis, wondered what, then, were the goals of negotiation — especially given the lack of incentive to bargain when there is no competition. Neither RCN nor Verizon FiOs are entering the Cambridge market in the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, what seemed at stake were issues of customer service such as ensuring the company’s marketing is fair and clear. While Davis complained strongly about ever-changing channel lineups, she reserved most of her ire for a rate structure she called “impenetrable,” starting with the fact there is more than one level of service called “basic,” not all of them cheap.

“People call and ask for basic service and wind up with the next level up or beyond that,” she said. “That kind of bait-and-switch service is disturbing to me. I want people to know how to spend as little as possible. I want the least-expensive service to be made clear … and not have anyone flimflammed anymore.”

She called a clear and inexpensive basic service an acceptable “senior discount.”

When she opened the meeting to comments from the public, expert on local politics and Harvard professor Robert Winters added complaints about how Comcast explains itself to subscribers. Read carefully a company letter about a new benefit to the public, he said, “and I guarantee that later in the letter it will talk about what’s being taken away.”

“It’s classic Comcast obfuscation style,” Winters said, calling its rate structure — multiplying user costs with the addition of even the smallest items — “despicable, just despicable.”

In particular, he blasted a Comcast “business decision” to bundle channels instead of offering them a la carte. “To hell with that,” he said.

And even more specifically, he hoped the nonpartisan politics channel C-Span would eventually be made public and free to everyone in the country, which connected with his ruminations about the need to look far ahead in negotiations — not about what Cambridge can get from Comcast in the latest decadelong contract, but what Cambridge and other communities should be thinking of further into the future. Already, the move to all-digital television was supposed to free citizen-owned bandwidth for more channels and new content; moving more content to the Web is another factor that could change the cable structure significantly.

For all the complaints about Comcast, and Winters’ urging that the City Council “rattle a few sabers” in pursuit of better Comcast service even if it wasn’t technically in its ability to effect change, Healy described the negotiators at Comcast now as the best and most sympathetic in decades.

“I’d describe it to date as good-faith negotiations. I think there’s mutual respect … and no reason to make it adversarial at this point,” Healy said. “I think there was reason in 2001, but that cast of characters is gone.”

“David Green recognizes the value of good public relations in Cambridge,” Healy said, referring to a local Comcast representative. “Not that he’s a pushover as a negotiator.”

The process began in February 2008 with the city manager’s appointment of a Cable License Renewal Committee from city staff, including CCTV. Informal negotiations are ongoing.

The next meeting of the committee, May 20, is to include discussion of the Cambridge Energy Alliance, Nstar Energy Efficiency Plan and the Property Assessed Clean Energy Program.