Galesburg vs. Goliath

by Mike Kroll

This Monday night the Galesburg City Council took a big step forward on behalf of their constituents by voting unanimously to ask the voters in November to approve construction of a city-owned ''telecommunications infrastructure.'' For most citizens this grandiose term can be reduced to a city-owned and operated cable system to compete with AT&T (formerly TCI). Although the potential for this system goes far beyond simply better cable TV let's face the facts - the currently available cable television service in this city is unresponsive to its customers, unreliable in its performance and over priced compared to service available elsewhere.

The only reason the Telecommunications Commission was motivated to pursue this avenue is that TCI took this community for granted as it invested next to nothing in the care and upkeep of what was one of the oldest cable TV systems in the state as millions of dollars flowed west to their Denver headquarters. When TCI finally got around to doing the system rebuild it had promised repeatedly years before the company did the absolute bare minimum required to keep the antiquated system on the air and it shows. In the meantime local sales of mini satellite dishes have been brisk.

Ultimately TCI was on the verge of bankruptcy when AT&T bought them out. However, unlike Victor Kiam's purchase of Remington Shaver (because he really liked the product) AT&T has never really been keen on the cable TV business for its own sake. Instead the once mighty telephone giant saw the ubiquitous cabling of cities far and wide as a backdoor into local telephone service. With copper infrastructure in-place to every home and many businesses TCI offered a quick path to the potential riches of local telephone service.

Meanwhile, Galesburg's corner of the TCI empire has always been a cash cow where the company spent very little and realized a healthy profit all the while ignoring the complaints of customers and treating city officials with undisguised contempt. This was made possible because the supposed ''deregulation'' of the cable industry by Congress was really the cable monopoly protection and indemnification act. Congress not only made true competition virtually untenable they also removed any semblance of local control over cable TV franchises. Is it any surprise that among stiff competition the cable television industry is the utility most despised by the public it claims to serve.

After finding it impossible to lure a bonafide competitor to go toe-to-toe with TCI here in Galesburg the City Cable Commission began researching the potential of public cable television system. In time it has become clear that with a little more foresight and design work but not too much additional cash the City can construct from scratch the kind of infrastructure TCI or AT&T should have built themselves. A system that relies much more heavily on fiber optic cable than copper coaxial cable and that is capable of a capacity far in excess of the needs of cable television alone for an investment of about $12-13 million.

While that is certainly not pocket change for the typical voter or family it isn't really that huge amount of money in the municipal budget scheme of things. There is so much money to be made in cable television that even with superior service, more channels and all the bells and whistles a city-operated cable TV system can still be offered to users at a more attractive price point than the present system and easily pay for this investment in less than ten years!

This wouldn't be a tax supported service like police, fire or streets but a service that can be supported by user fees even if less than one-out-of-five households sign-up. The added income that would be realized through the offering of extra services such as high-speed Internet access and even telephone service virtually guarantees the financial success of this enterprise. The voters choice come November should be a no-brainer and the referendum should pass easily except once again the cable television industry has used legislation to stack the deck against competition.

Our Illinois legislators, many of who have been well supported by generous campaign donations from the cable industry, passed a law that requires any municipality that wishes to create a competitive cable system to seek voter approval. This law goes so far as to specify in obtuse detail the wording of such a referendum and prohibits city officials from campaigning on behalf of passage. The required wording is not only long and complicated; it doesn't even allow the city to describe the system as a ''cable'' system. Instead it is referred to disingenuously as ''a community antenna television system.''

During the next few months you can count on AT&T to campaign diligently against this referendum. There are conveniently no restrictions on how they can behave and Galesburg has the potential to be a key test case. So far no other Illinois community has yet attempted to build such a system since passage of the legislation. If Galesburg voters approve this referendum in November it will be very bad news for AT&T. Not only will they lose their protected monopoly but the decision by TCI to rebuild their Galesburg system with chewing gum and baling wire guarantees that AT&T will be at a decided disadvantage competing against a modern and more flexible city-owned system.

During the next two-plus months we will witness a battle between the all-powerful evil empire and an underfunded and handicapped cadre of revolutionaries à là Star Wars. The battlefield will be messy and you can rest assured that the evil empire will spare no expense to defeat this insolent group of citizens who dare question the empire's right to reign supreme and unchallenged. We stand to gain a great deal with the success of this referendum: better cable TV, better local telephone service, high speed Internet access and, most of all, a system that is responsive to the needs and desires of its users. That klaxon you hear is calling us all to battle stations.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online August 26, 2000

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