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Paynesville Press - April 10, 2002

Cable contract negotiations still unsettled

By Michael Jacobson

Negotiations on a new cable contract for Paynesville with Mediacom have hit a snag: high-speed Internet access.

The city of Paynesville and Paynesville Township have made high-speed Internet access a priority in their negotiations with Mediacom on a new cable contract, and want to put a date when the service will be available in the contract.

"We're kind of in limbo at this point," said city administrator Steve Helget on the negotiations. "We're trying to get Mediacom to commit, but they haven't been very cooperative."

The city's and township's cable contract with Mediacom, which bought the franchise in 2000, had an expiration date of July 1, 2001, but the contract continues unless the city and township take action to terminate it, said city attorney Bill Spooner.

At one point, Mediacom was willing to set a date, said Spooner, but at the end the company became hesitant to a deadline. "They've committed as a company to moving in that direction, but they're unwilling to commit (to a date) and be wrong," Spooner said.

Despite starting to gather information three years ago, holding public hearings two years ago, and hiring an attorney who specializes in cable contracts, time has stretched out further than the city would have liked, said council member Dennis Zimmerman, a member of the cable commission.

"At this point, we're pretty close. The one thing, from my point of view, that's holding this up is high-speed Internet access," he said. "They're unwilling to set a date at which it will be available, and we think it's important to have a specific time when it will be offered."

Cable companies have made lots of promises in the past, including Mediacom, which listed high-speed Internet access as one of its three goals when it bought the cable franchise goals two years ago. The city wants to have specific language in the contract this time.

Zimmerman feels high-speed Internet access is very important because more and more businesses are using the Internet on a daily basis. Internet access via cable could be a half a dozen times as fast as access on regular phone lines.

"Right now, we only have dial-up access. Paynesville is really without what other communities already have, and it puts us at a competitive disadvantage," said Zimmerman.

Access via cable could be offered in different capacities for various users, allowing businesses and homeowners to purchase the amount of access they need or want.

"There's no question in my mind that we'll eventually get the service," said Helget of high-speed Internet. "It's just a matter of time."

Lakedale Telephone Company is also starting to survey its customers on high-speed Internet access.

If no private company offers high-speed Internet, the city could offer it as a public utility. The city could purchase wireless equipment to offer high-speed Internet, but it would take the approval of two-thirds of the voters at a referendum to establish a public utility, according to Helget.

Other issues in the cable contract - including more drops for live programming on the local cable channel, digital television (which is already being offered), and better definitions for signal quality and service - have already been decided, said Zimmerman. "To my view, we've already seen some improvement in customer service and feedback," he said.

To get some of these improvements, the city and township, which are negotiating together, had to offer a 15-year contract to Mediacom. The length of the contract is one reason why they don't want to sign too early, despite the fact that signing would put the drops and other contract provisions into effect.

The contract is so important because it covers such a long time, 15 years being an eternity in technology, explained Zimmerman. "We feel this is our leverage to put what the city and township thinks is important in contract language," he said. "Once we sign the contract, we've basically given up our leverage."

"If the cable company provides us with good service, we're more than happy to have them as the city franchise. We just want to make sure they know what we want," added Zimmerman.

Other members of the cable committee are: Michelle Fischbach, Kevin Koglin, Don Torbenson, and Don Pietsch, representing Paynesville Township.

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