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Paynesville Press - September 4, 2002

City signs new cable franchise with Mediacom

By Michael Jacobson

The city of Paynesville approved a new 15-year nonexclusive cable television franchise agreement with Mediacom last week, bringing to an end over two years of work on a new contract. The cable negotiating process began as it started for the city: with frustrated local residents complaining about cable service at a public hearing.

The city originally organized public hearings in 1999 in the hopes of completing the legal process required to nonrenew with a cable provider. When this proved extremely unlikely to accomplish, the city focused on negotiating as good as deal as they could get, even hiring an attorney who specializes in cable franchise agreements.

The latest public hearing was held last month to meet a new representative from Mediacom, but public complaints continued on the same topics: poor customer service, high prices, and dissatisfaction with the selection of programming.

Since that public hearing, city hall received more calls from residents echoing these complaints, city administrator Steve Helget told the city council last week.

"The complaints of the public are warranted. They are important," Helget said in a separate interview with the Press this week. "We want to push Mediacom to provide the best service possible."

Complaints about price and programming are beyond the bounds of the cable franchise, city attorney Bill Spooner told the council. "They can market their product however they want," he said. "All people can do is get their television viewing someplace else if they don't like the price. We can't regulate price."

City resident Jackie Braun, who has attended several of the public hearings about cable television service in Paynesville and has asked on several occasions about the high prices here, told the council that she had already left cable over a year ago for a satellite dish, where she got hundreds of channels for $29.95 a month, including leasing the dish.

Council member Dennis Zimmerman, who serves on the cable commission and has been actively involved in the franchise negotiations, recounted the city's efforts in the cable negotiations to the city council last week and concluded that "we've hammered out as good as deal as we're going to get with the leverage we have."

Benefits to signing, he noted, included a $7,500 payment for equipment for the local public access channel, while he saw no benefits to prolonging the negotiations. (The new agreement also provides for two-way cable drops at the township hall, the area center, and the high school in addition to city hall to enable more live cable broadcasts.)

"For all my misgivings with the current provider of cable, I believe it's time to approve this contract," said Zimmerman.

The council approved the new contract on a 3-2 vote, with council member Dave Peschong and Mayor Jeff Thompson joining Zimmerman in voting for it. Council members Harlan Beek and Jean Soine voted against the new cable contract.

The Paynesville Township Board of Supervisors rejected a new cable franchise agreement at their meeting last week, referring it back to the cable committee to work out some issues without specifying what those issues were.

The contract is fairly standard, said Helget in a separate interview this week. For a while, the hang-up in the cable negotiations was high-speed Internet access, which the city had identified as a priority. The city wanted Mediacom to commit to a specific date when high-speed Internet would be available.

This issue became less important, said Helget, after their cable franchise attorney informed them of an FCC ruling that modem service was not a responsibility of cable providers. Plus, this summer Lakedale started offering high-speed Internet via DSL, and Mediacom announced and started their own high-speed service.

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