Public input needed for cable contract negotiations

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 1/24/01.

The city's and township's current cable contract will expire in four months, and the public's input is needed again for the negotiations.

A survey is being distributed next weekend to residents in the cable service areas of the city and township. Cable service is available throughout the city and in the township in the Heatherwood Development and around the north side of Lake Koronis.

Also, a joint public hearing with the city council and township board of supervisors will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at 7 p.m. at city hall.

Two years ago, two public hearings were held, so citizens could comment about past cable service and future cable needs. At the time, the idea was to amass the documentation needed to possibly change cable providers.

Cable contracts are highly formalized by federal law. Contracts are generally a decade or more in length because installing cable in a community represents a sizable investment. Further protection for cable providers requires lengthy documentation to deny them a contract.

Six months later, in the summer of 1999, Triax sold out to Mediacom, and negotiations were put on hold to see what sort of service the new company would provide.

Mediacom did start to put in fiber optic cable in the spring of 2000, but the project - which would have doubled the power of the system - was not completed.

"We've realized the promises Mediacom has given us have been unfulfilled," said Dennis Zimmerman, a member of the city council who serves on the cable committee.

With the cable franchise contract expiring on June 1, 2001, negotiations will need to take a faster pace. The city has hired an attorney who specializes in cable contracts to help them write and negotiate the new contract. Right now, the contract negotiations are being conducted using an informal process, but either side could resort to a formal process.

Because of the regulations, documentation of public desires and complaints are a needed bargaining chip for the city and township. According to Brian Grogan - the cable attorney - public input provides a foundation for negotiations, shows demand for certain services, and ensures that significant issues will not be ignored.

"We need their response, whether it's good, bad, or indifferent," said city administrator Denny Wilde of public response. "We need their opinion."

A survey will be distributed over the weekend with the Press Plus. The survey is for everyone in the cable service area, not just the current 1,000 cable subscribers. The survey is meant to determine the cable needs of the entire public.

The 10-question sheet focuses on current satisfaction with cable service and customer service from Mediacom. Several questions provide an opportunity to discuss future needs.

Surveys should be returned to city hall by Saturday, Feb. 10. City hall's mailing address is 221 Washburne Avenue, Paynesville, MN 56362.

A different survey - focusing on future services like closed-circuit channels, high-speed data transmission, and satellite feeds - will be sent to certain civic institutions. The school, the city, the township, the Paynesville Area Health Care System, the Good Samaritan Care Center, the library, the Area Center, the Paynesville Area Chamber of Commerce, and churches in the cable service area will get a copy of this survey.

Public input on future cable-related needs will identify key negotiating issues and provide support for new services, according to a franchise renewal plan by Grogan. Deficiencies in past performance can be addressed with more specific language in new franchise documents.

Another bargaining chip in the negotiations will be length of service. Mediacom is expected to prefer a longer agreement, at least 15 years. The city and township would prefer a shorter contract so negotiations could be held again sooner.

An option for the city and township negotiators is to trade additional years for specific services. "Length of contract, with all the FCC regulations, is one of the biggest bargaining chips we have," said Wilde.

In an industry that is changing almost daily, negotiating the cable needs for the community for a decade in the future is difficult. "What we have to do is get the best deal for Paynesville that we possibly can," said Zimmerman.

Other technologies will continue to provide competition to cable service. They could become cheaper to implement and a more viable alternative. One focus in the current cable contract negotiations will be to not limit any alternative services.

"The options are starting to open up to outstate Minnesota," said Zimmerman, "and we need to be ready."

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