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City should overhaul franchising system amid media evolutions

City should overhaul franchising system amid media evolutions

Al Germond

One measure of any great city is the depth and the quality of the telecommunications services available to its residents. In this regard, Columbia has had a mixed history. While there are portents for future greatness, as matters stand now there’s a bit of an internicene war in progress that involves the City of Columbia, two cable franchises currently up for renewal and CenturyTel, the inheritor of the region’s classic telephone system. Developments come swiftly, but it’s time for Columbia to blast forward and show how progressive our community is when it comes to telecommunications.

The telecom services I’m talking about range from basic telephone and cellular connections to the most sophisticated high-speed links to the Internet. Divisions have become more blurred recently between “exclusive” franchises as cable television operators provide telephone and Internet links while classic wire-line telephone companies add high-speed digital subscriber lines over their existing networks, upgrading them with sufficient capacity to offer an infinite number of television channels, including high-definition TV.

My real concern is that the municipality of Columbia will continue to block CenturyTel from operating its Internet Protocol Television System (IPTV) for what I believe are rather picayune reasons. The current impasse is related to the accident of the city having to concurrently deal with the renewal of two cable television franchises in what appears to be an ongoing testy relationship, as cable companies these days have supplanted the telephone company when it comes to providing minimal levels of customer satisfaction.

Historically, Columbia has forever been catching up when it comes to telecom issues. Although the old Missouri Telephone Company’s intra-city dial system was something envied 70 years ago, it took a decade after direct long-distance dialing was first introduced in 1951 for it to reach this area. With only a couple of dozen connections to the outside world until an 800-channel microwave link was established in 1968, calling long distance could be troublesome—especially when hordes of students were trying to reach the outside world simultaneously.

The story was much the same with cable television, or CATV, as it was originally called. Clipping files overflow with stories over a 20-year period, beginning in 1957, of various failed attempts to build a CATV system here. Boonville had CATV by 1964 and Mexico two years later. Jefferson City and Moberly were wired at the dawn of the ‘70s, followed finally by Columbia in July 1977. The desire for regulation and control has been strident over the years, and the current controversy makes me wonder whether Columbia has made any progress at all.

The simple way out of this mess would be to adopt a whole new franchising system. Let’s begin by acknowledging the convergence between what can be sent down CenturyTel’s copper wires and the cable company’s coaxial lines. Cities should quit squabbling over the fine points of service and adopt uniform franchise procedures. Recognizing the need for some form of compensation, the franchise fee structure could be based on a miniscule percentage of total monthly revenue or fee per subscriber.

The scary news now is the talk I’ve been hearing of the city itself getting into the cable television business. One council person recently suggested that if the city can’t renew its franchise agreements with one or both of the area’s cable providers that it should go into the business itself.

Darkly, one envisions the city acquiring the existing cable TV “plant” through legal condemnation once its value has plunged after its owner’s operating franchise has been revoked.

Equally foreboding is the prospect of the Columbia Water and Light Department adopting a highly controversial technology called BPL, broadband over power lines, that would use the city’s network of electric lines to compete with DSL and cable modem connections. It’s controversial because it has the potential to interfere with radio communications. The city has enough knitting to worry about without venturing into these unknown realms.
Lastly, the Dark Star to everything I’ve been talking about is what the cellular telephone companies will sooner or later be equipped to provide.

If city officials worry about being fair, they should obsess themselves with the coming capacity of cell phone providers via wireless to do anything CenturyTel and the cable companies can do now. Columbia can go on pursuing its regulatory safari, but these tigers of telecommunications are simply too wild to capture.

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