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Paynesville Press - May 4, 2005

City to hold public hearing on cable TV

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Paynesville residents could soon have an alternative to Mediacom for cable television.

Lakedale Communications has been negotiating with the city to offer digital cable television over its phone lines - through a video operating system - to city residents.

A public hearing is scheduled on Tuesday, May 10, at 6 p.m. in city hall to give community members an opportunity to learn more about Lakedale's proposal and to ask questions or make comments.

Lakedale would offer digital cable to city residents through their existing phone lines. The service could extend beyond the city limits into parts of Paynesville Township, according to city administrator Steve Helget.

The service offered by Lakedale includes up to 110 digital video channels and 44 digital music channels, with a picture quality that is very near that of high-definition television, according to Lakedale CEO Gene South. Several years ago, Lakedale updated its wiring in the city making it possible to run telephone, DSL Internet service, and video all on the same lines without compromising any quality, he added. Because the lines are already in place, no digging would be required to start cable service, South said. Lakedale could provide digital video signal to up to three televisions in each home.

Lakedale Communications first approached the city with a cable television proposal last September. While city officials agreed that giving residents another option for cable service was a good idea, they worried that any franchise agreement with Lakedale would have to be nearly identical to their current agreement with Mediacom.

In April, city attorney Bill Spooner told the city council if the franchise agreement with Lakedale wasn't very similar to Mediacom's, the city could end up with the city in litigation with Mediacom.

The city has hired a specialized attorney to work on the contract with Lakedale.

In April, the city appointed an ad-hoc cable television committee - council members Jeff Bertram and Dennis Zimmerman and Helget - to oversee the negotiations.

One point of contention is a $15,000 contribution (over their 15-year contract) that Mediacom is required to provide to the city to maintain the city's local government access channel (Channel 8). Even though laws that govern cable television require a contribution for educational programming, Lake-dale has balked at paying this much towards local-cable access.

Lakedale is willing to offer local-cable access using the same equipment and live feeds that Mediacom uses, if the company can reach an agreement with Mediacom to do so, said South.

According to South, because Lakedale is not primarily a cable provider, it should be exempted from federal and state regulations that govern cable providers, which would eliminate the need to duplicate the city's contract with Mediacom. If the city feels more comfortable, it could pass a resolution specifically exempting Lakedale from state and federal statutes because Lakedale plans to offer service to fewer than 1,000 customers, South added.

The city council is expected to consider exempting Lakedale from state law after next week's hearing. Besides giving residents a chance to learn about the proposal, next week's hearing would also give Mediacom a chance to learn more about Lakedale's plan and to offer its views. Regardless of how Mediacom responds, South is so confident that Lakedale's offer is fair and legal that he offered to take financial responsibility for any legal action Mediacom may take against the city, he told the city council last week.

Even without a hearing or an agreement with the city, Lakedale has already begun to move forward with television service. By law, Lakedale can offer cable service to 49 Paynesville households to see if its lines are good and to optimize its signal. Last week, Lakedale started sending sales representatives into the community to recruit its first 49 customers.

Lakedale offers six different digital cable packages that provide a variety of cable programming and premium channels in addition to 44 digital music channels that are standard to every package. These packages include: Basic, 20 channels at $12.95 per month; Expanded Basic, 52 channels at $29.95 per month; Enhanced, 83 channels at $39.95 per month; Enhanced Plus, 91 channels - including premium movie channels - at $49.95 per month; Enhanced Ultra, 104 channels - including premium movie channels - at $59.95 per month; and Total Digital, 110 channels - including premium channels - at $69.95 per month. Premium movie channels are also available on an a-la-carte basis.

Lakedale plans to run a special on hook-up fees, according to South, and some older homes may require upgraded telephone wiring inside, and Lakedale would charge the homeowner for that, he added. Unfortunately, five homes in the Wilglo Acres Addition don't have the upgraded lines required for cable access. According to South, Lakedale would bring wires to those homes as soon as possible, though it may take a few years.

Allowing Lakedale to offer cable television in the city could benefit residents in two ways, according to Zimmerman. It would provide competition for Mediacom, and it would give customers who were unhappy with Mediacom a less-costly alternative.

Helget and other committee members are confident that an agreement with Lakedale will be reached. According to Helget, the city council could act immediately after the public hearing or it could opt to wait. The next regular city council meeting is Wednesday, May 11, at 6 p.m.

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