Cable's future up for grabs in Cape

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Cable television in Southeast Missouri is about to change for good.

New legislation means competition is on the horizon for current monopoly-holder Charter Communications, while municipal oversight and funding for public access channels are both in jeopardy.

In March, Gov. Matt Blunt signed Senate Bill 284 into law changing the way cable companies can negotiate contracts. Municipal franchise agreements like the one held by Charter to provide service in Cape Girardeau through December will be replaced by statewide franchise agreements allowing providers to operate anywhere in Missouri.

This is a major coup for fans of competition; most notably, other cable providers.

"We're very excited about this. Generally, when consumers have another choice that ends up being better for the consumer," said Marsha Haskell, AT&T's regional director for external affairs.

AT&T is hoping to make a splash in the market. Earlier this month the company announced it will spend $335 million to expand its fiber-optic network and upgrade video and Internet services across Missouri.

Haskell said in Southeast Missouri the money will go toward expanding DSL Internet service to 18 rural communities including Delta and Oak Ridge. Area residents eventually will have access to its "U-Verse" package, a bundle of digital video with interactive features and high-speed Internet.

Haskell said the new law allows for better integration of different mediums. Today, she said, special laws protecting cable companies don't make sense because increasingly the cable companies are also the Internet or phone service provider.

"The industry is really changing, and this is another indication of how these technologies are all converging. The old rules no longer serve the consumer," she said.

But the new law has drawbacks, critics say. It no longer requires a cable company to provide service to all homes in a municipality. This leaves open the potential for certain isolated or poorer areas of a town to be left out.

Previously, cable providers were required to give service to newly annexed areas in a franchise within one year of annexation. If they delayed, city officials could typically apply pressure.

"We won't have any say-so anymore," said Cape Girardeau public information coordinator Michelle Hahn. "Those developers will just have to go to Charter and push for it themselves."

The new statute requires only that providers build out to 25 percent of their footprint within three years and 50 percent of their footprint within six years. This, critics say, leaves large swaths of area potentially without coverage.

Consumers with complaints about service from the cable company will route their complaints through the Public Service Commission rather than city government.

"Under the current system, the city has recourse to go after and threaten them with canceling the franchise, but under the state bill the only real recourse is going to the PSC," said Andrew Chronister, who has sat on the Cape Girardeau Cable Television Advisory Board for eight years.

The law could also hurt cable access or "PEG" channels. Cape Girardeau currently receives about $30,000 annually from Charter to help run channels 5 and 23.

The new law does not require a provider to contribute money toward the operation of PEG channels and actually gives cable providers the right to determine whether community channels are "utilized" or not.

"The way it's written, any PEG channel or cable access channel that's not substantially utilized can be eliminated by the franchise. The cable company can just decide whether it's substantially utilized or not," Chronister said.

The new law also requires that all PEG channels have 40 hours of original programming per week. Cable Access Channel 5 currently airs about 15 hours of original programming weekly.

Hahn said she has begun examining how to expand the station's programming, but thinks it will be very difficult to reach the 40-hour mark.

Dr. James Dufek of Southeast Missouri State University, who also sits on the board, thinks it would be a shame to see the public channels taken away.

"That's the saddest part of all this, the PEG channels are really the last great soapbox that people could utilize," he said.

The law takes effect Aug. 28.

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