by BOB DORAN
Story & photos by BOB DORAN
SUE BUSKE, PRESIDENT OF THE BUSKE GROUP, A SACRAMENTO-based consulting firm, may live hundreds of miles from Humboldt County. But as the head of the company hired by a consortium of local governments to negotiate a new set of cable franchises here, she is set to play a critical role in shaping the county's communications future.
Why are cable franchises important? In a word, technology. Or rather, technological change.
"It's not just about TV anymore," Buske said. "That one wire, that fiber cable, can carry hundreds of cable channels, it can carry high speed Internet access, and it can carry a competitive phone service. The cable system is really a communications network that runs all over, except for the really rural areas.
"And one thing that the cities and the county can negotiate," she went on, "is to make sure that there's some part of it set aside for local use, that it's not all cable programming that [the company] chooses, that there are channels set aside for local use, and bandwidth for moving data between libraries, between schools and cities."
Of course, if you're talking about cable in northern Humboldt, you're talking about Cox Communications. The network of copper and fiber optic cables connecting homes and businesses to Cox's system stretches between poles overhead and runs through trenches under streets from Rio Dell to Big Lagoon. Cox pays fees to the various communities its wires pass through. Those fees are laid out in franchise agreements.
Because Cox is, in essence, leasing public property, Buske likened the franchises to contracts between a landlord and a tenant. "The cable company is a tenant and the city acts as a landlord. Part of what you negotiate [in the agreements] is the rent."
Six cities and the county of Humboldt are in the early stages of renegotiating expired or soon-to-expire cable agreements, something they haven't done for 15 years. In the rapidly advancing world of digital technology, a decade and a half amounts to eons. A lot has changed since the '80s and this time the public is paying closer attention to the process. This time people want more.
One of the ideas being batted around is to set up a "community media center" that would be staffed by tech-savvy helpers to assist various groups in getting their messages on the air. Another is to establish an "I-Net" (independent network), linking, for example, the databases of fire stations, police departments, schools and other public facilities via fiber optic lines that would bypass the Internet and hence be more secure.
One key question: Assuming the cities and counties can decide on what new services they want, who will pay for them? A Cox spokeswoman raised the possibility that additional costs could get passed on to cable subscribers in the form of increased rates -- although that has typically not happened in other California communities that have negotiated new franchise agreements. Local officials say the agreements can be structured so as to avoid higher cable bills.
"Everybody's posturing at the moment," said Arcata City Manager Dan Hauser. "We want it all free, of course. And they want us to pay for it. Obviously that's all part to the negotiations."
Even though Humboldt is relatively small and remote, the two main adversaries in the franchise negotiations are very much major players. The Buske Group has negotiated similar agreements all over the state, including in Santa Rosa. Cox, meantime, is the fourth-largest cable provider in the country, with gross revenues last year of a whopping $5.4 billion.
An important phase in the planning process begins next week with a series of workshops in which the public is invited to learn more about the franchise process and share visions for the evolution of communications in the county. A telephone survey is also planned. Eventually, the Buske Group -- which has been hired by Humboldt County, Eureka, Arcata, Fortuna, Rio Dell, Blue Lake and Ferndale -- will use such input to make a formal proposal to Cox. It is expected that the whole process, including negotiations, will take a year.
A `state-of-the-art' system
Cable service is presently available to approximately 50,000 homes in the greater Humboldt Bay region, primarily along the Highway 101 corridor. A majority of those homes -- 32,000 customers -- utilize Cox's video service.
"Communities need to be connected. That's the future," said Wendy Purnell, director of public affairs for Cox Humboldt.
There's no doubt Cox has been busy making connections. Since 1996 the company has spent over $23 million upgrading its Humboldt network. "We built a hybrid system utilizing both fiber and coaxial [wire] cable," said Purnell, who called the current telecommunications system "state of the art."
"A few years ago the system was only capable of carrying 78 channels and it was one-way communications," Purnell explained. "Now we're carrying over 240 video channels in a two-way system and we offer high speed Internet access over the entire area."
What that means is that there's no need to lobby Cox for a system upgrade, typically one of the first things communities ask for in franchise negotiations.
The last time cable franchises were negotiated in Humboldt, most of the government entities were interested in just one thing: getting the highest franchise fee possible. They succeeded, as Cox is currently paying the cities and the county 5 percent of its revenue, the maximum permitted by Federal Communications Commission guidelines. (The percentage includes a portion of advertising revenues, but does not include a cut of Internet service charges.)
Since it's not likely that cash-strapped government bodies will ask for less money, and since Cox has recently upgraded its system, you might wonder what's left to negotiate? The answer is new services made possible in large part by 21st-century technology.
Public access in Arcata
Buske said it's important to make sure that part of Cox's new system is set aside for local use -- through an expansion of public access television, for example. Right now, out of the 240-plus channels, three are set aside for public access.
It wasn't until the mid-`80s that anyone asked the local cable company to include public access as part of the deal. When the last franchise agreement was up for renewal, Alice Harris, then Arcata's city manager, tried to get the other cities to work together to negotiate for a public access facility. Cox was happy to supply a couple of channels, but didn't offer much else. When none of the other cities showed interest, Harris struck a deal for Arcata alone and a channel called Arcata Community Access Television (ACAT) was founded.
"Alice Harris got the picture," said Libby Maynard, executive director of the Ink People, an arts organization that oversees operation of public access Channel 12. "Alice understood what free speech was about; she saw the potential of public access. The other city governments couldn't see it. Alice said, `We want our own station and our own facility.'"
Initially, an independent board of directors ran ACAT with support from the city. Things worked fine for some time, but problems arose after Harris left her position in 1997. Though attrition, the ACAT board had evolved to a point where everyone on the board was a video producer. The interim city manager did not really understand the relationship with ACAT. Tempers flared and a war of words broke out, primarily on the pages of the Arcata Eye, where Editor Kevin Hoover fanned the flames. In the end an embarrassed Arcata City Council terminated its contract with the ACAT board and tried to start over.
Eventually the Ink People came forward to help sort out the mess. "We spent two years `exploring' running the station," said Maynard. "It took my board two years to say OK," in part because of "the unfortunate nature of ACAT's demise."
The Ink People officially took over in September. At this point the station is barely holding on. "It's at a very minimal level. Right now we're just kind of treading water," said Maynard. "The equipment is antique. Bruce Brown, our manager, is only funded for 10 hours a week through the city. We're keeping it running to meet the federal guidelines and to try to meet the community needs, except we're finding it's not enough. We need for him to be there more hours. We need more time on the air."
While the station is limping along now, Maynard figures her arts organization will play a significant role when the new franchise is negotiated.
What the community wants
What will the Ink People ask for as part of the franchise deal? Their new name for Channel 12 gives a big hint: Humboldt Community Media Center TV.
"We'd like a community media center that's accessible to everyone," said Maynard. "State-of-the-art. Totally digital."
Maynard said Ink People, which she described as "among the leaders in the community in [digital media]," is the logical choice to manage a public media center.
"We started back in 1997 with our first digital and Internet programs. We had the first public Internet access, before the library came in with it. And we have been pushing the arts and culture community to become familiar with the new technology."
Maynard sees the coming media center as a partial solution to a problem that the Ink People are facing. They will soon have to move out of the space they have been renting from the city of Eureka in the back of the Municipal Auditorium because of a lack of disability access. (Retrofitting the building is deemed cost-prohibitive.) "We're looking for a space large enough to accommodate the Ink People and a community media center," Maynard said.
Erin Stevenson, Ink People's recently hired technology director, said the organization "will need to educate people and groups in the community, show them how to use the technology and show them the advantages of a community media center.
"Our primary role will be as a catalyst so that more and more folks understand that this is a very powerful medium that they can use to get their messages out to be heard by a larger audience. We hope to have a broader range of opinions than we have with the one channel."
According to Buske, digital community media centers have become a routine part of franchise negotiations, "because that's the way the technology is going. You edit on a computer. We all know it is becoming commonplace: We do newsletters, we do graphics on our computers, create home movies that look professional. Even kids can edit movies on their computers now.
"Access is evolving along with the technology," she continued. "And that's one of the things that people need to look at: their ability to use the cable system using the tools we already have in many homes. That linkage is not there for a lot of people. People who are [involved] in the media, who are into having their media toys, know about it, but the average person doesn't."
The Buske Group recently negotiated a franchise renewal agreement between Charter Communications and several cities in the Gilroy-Hollister area, a rural community south of San Francisco. The new contract included a public media center, built in a space provided by the local community college and renovated with funds from the cable company, which also provided money for training and pays for ongoing staffing. They have four channels, one for public access, one for the various governments, and two for education, one K-12 and another for the community college. More channels are available when the need grows.
"And they only have half the subscriber base Humboldt has; they only have about 15,000 `subs,'" said Buske. "The job of the media center is to have personnel to provide assistance to the schools, to the cities, to Rotary, the Girl Scouts, whoever wants to use the system."
What the cities want
Arcata City Manager Dan Hauser has been working with officials from the other six local governments preparing to negotiate with Cox. For several reasons, the city managers are particularly interested in an institutional network, an I-Net.
What's an I-Net? Buske explained: "The cable system Cox provides has been rebuilt, so it has optimal fiber that goes to many areas. The fiber doesn't actually go into your house, it goes to a neighborhood node, and then coaxial cable connects to individual homes. That's what we call the subscriber network.
"Integrated into the same bundle of cables that goes through town are fibers that could link the libraries together or link all the schools together -- and not the same ones that go to the homes -- independent. That's the I-Net."
Hauser said an I-Net would benefit the cities in a number of ways, not least in a budgetary sense. "Right now both Fortuna and Arcata are paying thousands of dollars a year to lease a secure line [from SBC, formerly Pacific Bell] that connects our police departments with Eureka police and the sheriff's office. Records are shared between the departments, but it has to be a secure line. That's one thing we think the cable provider should provide for the community. We also want to link the government offices and fire departments."
Hauser would also like to see an upgrade connecting more public facilities with access television. The Arcata Community Center is already wired, as is Fortuna's new River Lodge Conference Center. "We believe the system should also include wiring at the Adorni Center, maybe at the Municipal Auditorium. The libraries need to be wired together. Those are the sorts of things we're going to be asking for."
Interest in an I-Net is also strong in the education community, said John McBrearty [photo at left] , director of information technology services for College of the Redwoods. He said that the college is already in "very good shape" in terms of digital infrastructure.
"We already have a high quality, high bandwidth network on campus with fiber from building to building. The issue for us is getting from our campus to other sites and to the rest of the region. We'd love to be able to have an inexpensive high-speed network to HSU, for example, so we could exchange digital media files, information files, student work, things like that. Same would go for the Humboldt County Office of Education, which is the hub for all the schools in the northern part of the county."
Cathy Dickerson [photo at right], a curriculum specialist for the Humboldt County Office of Education specializing in technology, also mentioned the importance of an I-Net connecting K-12 schools with the community college and the university.
"We'd like all our schools to be on the same network so information can be distributed to them similarly with equity of access to programs. Ideally we would want to see every school have a high-speed connection, a T-1 type connection, so they can access video-based resources as well as text-based resources for teaching and learning."
Buske said that an I-Net is a typical request -- she just got one in the Gilroy-Hollister franchise agreement. "They have an I-Net linking 25 public buildings in Gilroy. There are 25 public buildings in Hollister all connected together and five in San Juan Bautista, a town with only about 300 people. The fiber hubs in at the city halls, and then they're all tied together by a big circle to form a regional intranet. Everything is interconnected. If there's an interest in that sort of thing, you can do it; you can negotiate for it in the new agreement."
Buske emphasized that things like an I-Net or a media center will be included in the contract only if people say they want them.
Purnell, the Cox spokeswoman, warned that the public should think twice about what it asks for. She raised the possibility that the cost of services like a countywide I-Net or a media center could end up on cable bills.
"All of these new services cost something and that could very well be passed on to the customers in price increases," Purnell said.
"That's actually a classic cable operator response," Buske said. "The fact of the matter is there's nothing that mandates them to pass the costs on to the subscribers. Federal law addresses a lot of these issues. It doesn't tell the cable operator they have to pass the costs along; that's up to the operator."
Buske continued, "What the cable industry does when they're in the renewal mode, they basically make that sort of statement [a warning about the cost] as a way of discouraging the public from coming forward. It's a divide-and-conquer tactic, a way of pitting parts of the public against the local government in negotiating responsible compensation."
Buske said an important consideration is the value of the franchise to Cox. "The average cable subscriber pays around $40 a month, and that's a conservative number. Multiply that by 30,000 subscribers: That's $1.2 million, times 12 months, times 10 years and you're talking about $144 million -- that's the value of the franchise to Cox. That puts it in a totally different light." In other words, Cox could easily absorb the extra costs -- $1 million worth of added services, in the form of an I-net or a media center, is just a small portion of the money they stand to make.
And $144 million is just part of Cox's revenue stream. The company provides Internet access to a growing number of subscribers and a digital music service to area stores and restaurants. They get a cut from interactive TV shopping services like QVC, plus advertising revenue from local businesses and a share of national ad sales.
And that's just the beginning. Wait until SBC and Caltrans finally settle their differences. Because the fiber optic connection to the rest of the state is incomplete, Cox currently relies on satellite relays. When the fiber optic link is finally connected new opportunities open up.
"At that point our goal will be to offer additional services that we can't at this time," said Purnell. "There's the potential for new levels of business service for Internet access with different speeds and different price points. This system is also capable of other advanced services, one of them being Internet telephony [phone service].
"We can easily carry HDTV, entertainment on demand, energy management, security systems," she added.
For the moment, though, attention is on the upcoming focus groups.
"This is the time of dreaming. We can ask for anything. Then we figure it out in the negotiations," said Maynard of the Ink People.
Buske agreed. "The focus groups are brainstorming sessions. We don't expect people to know anything about cable. What we expect them to know about is their community. We need to get people to look at the big picture, and then to see how their community fits into it.
"So you might say, `Oh, I'm active with the local breast cancer society, and our goal for the next two years involves a community education process. Is there any connection to cable in that?' There certainly is. You just have to get people to connect the dots. Give them a little information, then let them connect the dots."
Four questions will be at issue in a series of focus groups this month related to upcoming negotiations over a new set of cable franchise agreements for northern Humboldt.
TIMES AND LOCATIONS:
Humboldt County Office of Education, 901 Myrtle Ave, Eureka.
Wharfinger Building, 1 Marina Way, Eureka.
Redwood Region Economic Development
Wharfinger Building, 1 Marina Way, Eureka.
While the workshops are broken up by interest area the delineations are not strict; anyone can attend any meeting that fits their schedule.
For details or to RSVP call 441-4144 or
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.