Cable woes not the city’s fault

Maureen Kirk is the Mayor of Chico

The recent loss of the cable television signal, first during the Oakland Raiders vs. New York Jets playoff game and then during the Oakland Raiders vs. Tennessee Titans AFC championship game, has prompted many people to complain to the city about the company operating the local cable system.

Is the Chico City Council happy with what has taken place? No! Is the City Council as frustrated with what has taken place in the last several weeks as the citizens? Yes! What can the city do? Therein lies the problem.

The City Council has been unhappy with the local cable television service for some time now. Before AT&T Broadband acquired the Chico cable system from Chambers Cable, the city received three forms of complaints: cost of service, program selection and technical problems.

What few seem to realize is that, except for a period from 1992 to 1996, the cable industry has been deregulated, leaving local jurisdictions with little control over their respective cable companies.

Simply put, the city cannot regulate rates or programming.

But the city has to deal with a couple of misconceptions about its relationship with the cable company. The city has a franchise agreement with AT&T Broadband that allows the company to utilize the public right of way to install equipment to provide service to Chico residents.

Many people who have complained about the cable company are mad that the city allows AT&T Broadband to have a monopoly. Actually, the franchise is non-exclusive, meaning that any competing cable company could negotiate with the city and, after the granting of a franchise agreement, compete against AT&T Broadband.

The second misconception is that the city can dictate what programs the cable company selects to offer. In fact, the cable company is protected by the First Amendment in its right to select what programming it will offer.

When AT&T Broadband took over from Chambers Cable, the city started receiving a fourth type of complain—customer service. AT&T agreed to increase staffing and training, add additional telephone lines to the call center, provide a rebate to subscribers to the Chico system and provide a technology grant to the city for much-needed equipment to broadcast meetings from the City Council Chamber.

Still, in the short time that AT&T Broadband provided cable service to the City of Chico, the city received more complaints than all of the previous years combined. The City of Chico approved transfer of the cable television franchise agreement to Comcast in late December, and Comcast now is the operator of record. The name will be changed shortly.

The city has been willing to “wipe the slate clean” for Comcast, forgiving (but not forgetting) the sins of AT&T Broadband. Now the city is in a “wait and see” mode with Comcast, and so far, despite the two very frustrating outages, which couldn’t have come at worse times, the city has been pleased by what it has heard from our new cable operator.

Please rest assured that the City Council will exercise what powers it does have with the cable operator to ensure that Chico residents receive the type of service they deserve.