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Officials prepare for cable TV talks

(Published August 28, 2000)

By KATE ALEXANDER

Staff Writer

City officials are preparing to begin negotiations for a new citywide cable TV franchise agreement that they hope will resolve the myriad service problems that have plagued the cable system since its inception.

The city recently received the results of a federally mandated assessment of cable-related community needs, which found D.C. residents dissatisfied with rates, service selection, customer service, and signal quality and reliability.

The stinging criticism of District Cablevision stems primarily from the cable operator’s failure to live up to some of its contractual obligations, according to the community survey, and to provide services similar to those of suburban cable systems.

District Cablevision "built a defective system that has provided poor service for the community…It’s antiquated and not equipped to meet the needs of the community in the future," said Cynthia Pols, director of the Institute for the Positive Use of Technology, the nonprofit organization contracted by the D.C. government to conduct the community needs assessment.

Using the needs assessment as a guide, the city aims to negotiate a tighter contract with mandates for better customer service and monitoring features, said Walter Adams, staff attorney for the cable television office.

The negotiations will involve representatives from several D.C. government agencies, including the Mayor’s Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications and the corporation counsel, and either District Cablevision parent company AT&T or Comcast Corp. – and possibly both, Adams said.

AT&T currently operates District Cablevision but is set to sell the cable franchise to Comcast, though it is not clear if that transaction will close before the city negotiations begin in October. District Cablevision -- the majority of which was owned by TCI with a minority interest owned by Robert Johnson of Black Entertainment Television – was sold to AT&T last year.

District Cablevision’s original 15-year cable franchise agreement with the city expired in March but has been extended for one year. Adams estimated the cable contract to be worth $500-775 million over a 10-year period.

At the core of the negotiations for a new long-term agreement is the need to update the city’s cable technology. These upgrades would allow for high-speed, digital transmission, provide additional resources for public, educational and governmental channels, and remedy several service problems.

In particular, the community assessment notes that the cable system capacity has yet to grow to the originally negotiated 79 channels, an emergency alert system has not been implemented and an institutional network linking public offices, agencies, libraries and schools has not been built.

Public access was also particularly hard-hit by District Cablevision’s shortcomings, receiving fewer funds and equipment than contracted and having the channels’ signal quality degraded, according to the needs assessment.

Nantz Rickard, executive director of the Public Access Corp. of the District of Columbia (DCTV), said the franchise agreement has been fraught with problems since its beginning. But, she said, the District now has the opportunity and the power to fix those problems, in contrast to when the contract was first negotiated.

"If we didn’t have these issues, we wouldn’t have the basis for tightening the language," she said. "These small changes can make a huge difference for consumers."

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator