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Oak Harbor's cable future negotiated

You have your MTV. Do you also want your History, Weather or Playboy channel? How about faster Internet access?

Officials from the city of Oak Harbor are taking these questions very seriously. They have started the preliminary process of negotiating with cable provider AT&T, even though the cable franchise contract renewal isn’t due for three years.

The first step, according to city Assistant Attorney Allison Cumberbatch, is to find out what residents and businesses want from their cable service. The city hired a consultant, Richard Li of Seattle-based Metropolitan Communications Consultants, to help with the entire process.

“We’re trying to get as much input as possible,” Cumberbatch said. “We need to know what people want before we can sit down and negotiate.”

City staff and Li have created a survey to gauge the wants and needs. It’s online at www.mcco.com/oakharbor. Hard copies of the survey are also available at City Hall and will be sent to utility customers.

Li and the city are also putting together two different community advisory committees. One committee will focus on creating a city cable franchise policy, while the other will advise on technical matters.

When it comes to their TV or PCs, many people have a whole lot to say. In February, the city council got an earful from citizens before granting AT&T a three-year extension of the old franchise agreement. Under that agreement, the company had to add 70 channels, which it did — and then some. But most of the new channels were only available to people with the more expensive premium cable packages.

“We could not dictate where the channels are,” Cumberbatch said. “Unfortunately, people with basic cable didn’t see much change.”

The concerns vary. Many community members, like Ginny Jones, want more or specific channels to be available on their cable packages.

“We would like the History Channel, TNN and the Animal Channel,” she said. “They added the Food Channel, and I first thought ‘yuck.’ But that Emeril, I think he’s nuts. I do enjoy him.”

Resident Eve Oliver said she’s happy with her TV line-up, but she doesn’t want to see the price increase any more.

Councilman Richard Davis’ concern is economic. He said he would like to see broadband come into the city, which would mean high-speed data transfer capabilities.

“The issue is the city’s economic future, not whether we have the Weather Channel,” he said. “We need to attract low-impact businesses. ... If we don’t have the infrastructure in place, we will be left behind.”

Since the lines that bring cable TV — as well as electricity and telephone service — to homes must travel along public lands, companies have to enter into franchise agreements with government bodies to use this land. Yet Cumberbatch said federal law limits what a city or other government entity can demand from a cable provider.

The core issue in the negotiations will likely be fiber optics. Oak Harbor doesn’t currently have digital cable service. To offer it in the city, AT&T would have to run fiber optic cables from “Sharp’s Corner” in Skagit County, over the bridge, all the way to the city.

Bruce Roberts, the director of information services for the school district and the city’s “tech guy,” explained that replacing the existing “analog” coax or twisted-pair cables with “digital” fiber optics will broaden the bandwidth and allow faster transmission of data.

He said upgrading to fiber optics is analogous to adding four lanes to the highway. The road is simply able to handle more traffic at a higher rate of speed.

The result would be that AT&T could offer digital data services to customers. That means many more TV channels with clearer reception. It also means high-speed internet service.

Verizon offers a high-speed internet service called DSL to a limited number of people living along Highway 20 in Oak Harbor. But digital internet service, which is even faster, could be available to anyone with cable TV.

It would mean more than faster Web surfing. With a fiber optic cable system in place, Oak Harbor would look much more attractive to a high-tech company, for example, that sends information or even products over phone or cable lines. In this Information Age, more and more companies are locating to places for quality-of-life reasons instead of proximity to markets or services.

“These companies do their work over fiber optics,” Cumberbatch said.

Steve Kipp, executive director for communications at AT&T Broadband, said the company’s plan is to gradually upgrade to fiber optics all over the state. The company spent $300 million this year putting in fiber optics.

Kipp said AT&T is scheduled to bring fiber optics to Oak Harbor “sometime in 2004.” He points out that many cities in the state, even parts of Bellevue, don’t have fiber optic cable service.

“The plan,” he said, “is essentially to be able to offer additional TV channels as well as some additional services to all out customers.”

Oak Harbor city officials, however, want a more concrete agreement about upgraded service in the future.

Cumberbatch said she’s already sent AT&T formal written notice, as required under law, that the city wants to proceed with formal negotiations. At the same time, she let them know that the city wants to informally negotiate. The current franchise expires July 15, 2005.

According to Cumberbatch, city officials can’t force AT&T to build fiber optics — again, because of federal law — but they can “negotiate an upgrade.”

She said the city’s best bet is to appeal to AT&T on an economic level. City negotiators needs to show, through the surveys and the committees, that there is a market in Oak Harbor for digital cable services. AT&T needs to know there are customers willing to shell out money for more TV channels, fast internet service or the related things that will inevitably be developed.

“The best we can do is put ourselves in a good negotiating position,” she said. “The more community input we get, the better off we’ll be.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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