New cable television provider courts North Suburban Communications Commission

NSCC sees CenturyLink as able suitor

Nearly a month after the final member city of the North Suburban Communications Commission accepted a franchise extension and transfer deal with Comcast, ending a four-year impasse between NSCC and the cable provider essentially in a draw, a new cable company came knocking.

Representatives from CenturyLink, a phone and Internet service provider in the Twin Cities which also provides cable television service elsewhere in the U.S., pitched their TV product “Prism” to NSCC at the commission’s Dec. 4 meeting.

Tyler Middleton, a vice president of operations and general manager of the Minnesota market for CenturyLink presented to a  receptive commission.

CenturyLink is updating its connections to homes in the metro area in order to provide faster Internet connection speeds, Middleton said, presenting the opportunity to also provide television service.

Middleton explained the company’s TV product runs over its Internet Protocol network and boasts typical pay-TV features such as on-demand viewing, digital video recording and high definition channels.

Middleton also noted the company can offer wireless cable boxes and faster-than-typical channel switching.

NSCC is made up of Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Lauderdale, Little Canada, Mounds View, New Brighton, North Oaks, Roseville, St. Anthony, and for the time being, Shoreview.

Competition might yield cheaper cable

As selling points to a cable commission with a rocky recent history with Comcast, Middleton noted Federal Communications Commission findings from 2008 that cable prices can drop by 10 percent when a second cable television provider enters a market.

Additionally, Middleton noted that more cable television subscribers in the area would mean more money going to NSCC. Hard-wired pay TV customers, unlike those with satellite dishes, pay franchise fees to cable regulators.

One instance cited in a CenturyLink handout said, “For every 1,000 satellite or ‘cord cutter’ subscribers we win, your annual franchise fee revenues will increase by $45,000.” The handout noted the figure was based on an average monthly cable bill of $75 and findings from a 2009 study.

If there was one minor sticking point during an otherwise successful first date, it was CenturyLink’s insistence on not setting a build out schedule, or deadline for when service capabilities would be in place.

Middleton said the company would “proceed on a success-based type of model,” meaning the company would provide service and the infrastructure necessary to do so to willing customers only.

The meeting handout put a prohibition on an “arbitrary, mandatory build out schedule,” stating, “Unlike the existing facilities-based, monopoly provider, CenturyLink has to win each and every customer.”

Following a brief back and forth between Middleton and the commission, the body discussed its next moves, which include putting out notices that it is accepting franchise applications.

CenturyLink would enter into a service agreement—a franchise—with each individual city in the commission.

Franchise agreements set the rules of cable operations in the area and the level of funding for services like public access programming, which is paid for by cable customers. NSCC enforces the franchise agreements.

Ending the discussion, Falcon Heights commissioner Richard Talbot, who is finishing up his 20th year on the commission this December, seemingly spoke for the entire body.

“I like the idea of having another choice,” he said.

Middleton was hesitant to put a timeline on when cable TV customers could be offered CenturyLink service, because there is no franchise deal in place and to protect the company’s business concerns. He said the company would submit a franchise application and go from there.

Commission notes

CTV Executive Director Cor Wilson said the FCC is once again looking at Comcast’s proposed purchase of Time Warner cable and could make a decision on whether to green-light the purchase by the end of February or early March.

If Comcast is allowed to buy Time Warner, it will divest from the Twin Cities market, leaving behind a descendant company called Midwest Cable, which will do business in the area as Greatland Connections.

Comcast shareholders, as well as shareholders in Charter Communications, would own the company.

A more detailed rundown of what the sale would mean for area cable customers can be found in the Nov. 19 edition of the Bulletin.

Shoreview, still technically a member of NSCC through the end of the year, is unlikely to rescind its resignation. The city voted to leave the commission in August.

At Shoreview’s Dec. 1 council meeting, council members approved the purchase of video equipment needed to broadcast city meetings without the aid of CTV, NSCC’s sister organization, which currently broadcasts and webcasts a host of city functions for member cities, including Shoreview.

Shoreview city officials have said the city is leaving NSCC because of its sometimes noxious relationship with Comcast and because of the commission’s spending on recent franchise negotiations.

Shoreview extended its franchise with Comcast along with remaining NSCC member cities, but in the future will negotiate franchises on its own, without the commission’s power in numbers.

Shoreview City Manager Terry Schwerm confirmed there have been no moves to stay in the commission. He said the city has had no direct talks with CenturyLink, though it’s interested in doing so.

Wilson said she would need to speak to Schwerm to finalize whatever is to happen on Shoreview’s commission membership.

At the Dec. 4 NSCC meeting, Shoreview was represented by a city name placard and an empty chair.

Wilson also said come 2015, Shoreview cable customers will no longer get certain community channels from CTV. Those include channel 14, which broadcasts city and county meetings, channel 15, which broadcasts community events from member cities, channel 21, which broadcasts community events from outside NSCC and channel 98, the NASA channel.

Wilson also said the city’s financial concerns regarding the commission ring hollow in light of how much it would need to invest in order to record and broadcast city functions on its own.

“They’re going to spend a lot of money,” she said.

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7824. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.

 

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