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Oak Harbor TV gets poor ratings

For the most part, it seems that Oak Harbor residents aren’t very happy about their cable service through AT&T Broadband.

Oak Harbor’s cable consultant, Richard Li with Seattle-based Metropolitan Communications Consultants, gave the city council a preliminary report on the current franchise agreement with AT&T.

Li said AT&T Broadband was non-compliant with the current franchise agreement in a number of areas. Most notably, Li said there was “an adverse finding” on the question of quality of service.

Li said an on-line survey for AT&T customers in the city received 488 “hits,” plus a number of people filled out hard copies of the survey. Of the 241 comments from customers, Li said all but three were negative. “Some were quite strongly negative,” he said.

The main areas of concern among cable customers, Li said, are programming and rates. About 25 percent of the negative comments are about rates while 40 percent of the negative comments concern programming — what channels are available.

“Even those who are getting premium services,” he said, “complain about the programming.”

Also, Li said AT&T violated the terms of the franchise agreement by merging with Comcast Corporation on Nov. 12 without giving the city of Oak Harbor the chance to review and consent to the merger.

According to Li, the city has already notified AT&T of the breach of contract.

What these non-compliance findings mean, Li explained, is that the city can revoke its franchise agreement with AT&T Broadband. Under the Cable Act and FCC laws, a municipality cannot terminate a franchise agreement unless there is such proof of noncompliance.

Yet Li didn’t recommend that the city move to terminate the franchise. Instead, he said the city can use these issues as bargaining chips to help get a better deal from AT&T in the future.

What the city is most interested in getting from AT&T is high-speed connectivity through fiber optics. This could be a big boost to the city’s economic future since many companies nowadays depend on this capacity.

“A common thought is that only high-tech people need this,” Li said, “but it’s not true. Everybody needs it — doctors, lawyers, graphic artists.”

Installing fiber optics is a big investment. But Steve Kipp, executive director for communications at AT&T Broadband, said earlier this year that the company plans to run fiber optic lines from the Anacortes area to Oak Harbor sometime in 2004.

Li said that would be great if true, and would ease negotiations, but he’s heard several different stories from the company.

Yet Li said he hopes to keep the negotiations from becoming adversarial. One of the positive things about the survey is that it shows Oak Harbor residents want high-speed internet access and are willing to pay for it.

“The city has a lot of things to offer AT&T,” he said. Namely, paying customers.

The city council is scheduled to have a work session with Li Feb. 7 to discuss a more finalized report on the survey. The results of the survey will be available at a Web site early in 2003.

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