Cable TV competition could lower Mpls rates

But will some communities get left out of the deal?

Graphic by Chris Harrison
Graphic by Chris Harrison

Is Minneapolis big enough to have two cable systems? CenturyLink says yes, and hopes the Minneapolis City Council will approve their proposal sometime this month.

Comcast currently has a cable franchise to serve Minneapolis until 2021, and there has been only one company serving the entire city since 1983. CenturyLink late last year announced that they would seek approval to operate cable service in the city as well through its Prism TV, which currently operates in 14 markets across the country.

However, according to the Request for Information that CenturyLink submitted to the Council in February, Prism’s “initial deployment” in Minneapolis will be “to approximately 30 percent of the households.” If more households are added, “[it] will be driven by our success in the market,” claims the company.

BMA Networks President Pete Rhodes
BMA Networks President Pete Rhodes

It is this that worries BMA Networks President Pete Rhodes when he spoke to the city council during a February public hearing on CenturyLink’s initial plans. His 24-hour cable channel, currently carried by Comcast, reaches at least a half-million subscribers. It has been on cable since 1984.

When asked if the “30 percent” will include the 55411 and 55412 Zip Codes, the area of the city which has a large population of low-income residents, Blacks, and other people of color, CenturyLink Spokeswoman Joanna Hjelmeland told the MSR in a phone interview that she wasn’t at liberty to disclose that information because it is a trade secret. But she assured us that the company has not discriminated against any neighborhood in any of the 14 areas where they are now located, and they plan to “serve diverse communities” in Minneapolis.

She also pointed out that CenturyLink has partnered with Minneapolis Urban League, Minneapolis Public Schools and PCs for People to conduct training programs and provide computers and Internet service to low-income families.

“I have nothing against competition,” noted Rhodes. He supports the City’s attempt to look into bringing competitiveness in cable, but he told the city council during the hearing that he wants assurances that if CenturyLink is granted a franchise it will be available to all Minneapolis residents and not just a third as currently planned.

“Their distribution of services should be provided for the entire community,” stated Rhodes in an MSR phone interview. Their current plans “don’t bode well for the community I serve, which is one of my first concerns.”

As the area’s only Black-owned cable programmer, Rhodes wants his channel to be available to all cable customers, no matter what company they buy. “I stand a chance of being disadvantaged… We worked very hard to build our audience over the last 30 years.”

As a result, he advocates “fair and equitable from the broadband standpoint, competitive pricing standpoint, as well as from the programming standpoint.” He’s also concerned about CenturyLink’s reluctance to provide public details on where they will provide services. “This is an issue.”

CenturyLink also has been accused of trying to get around existing state law in its bid. Minnesota requires cable companies to provide service to an entire city within five years of obtaining a franchise. Rhodes added, “I do question why now the City would do this in light of CenturyLink’s [not sharing more information]. They are saying it is proprietary and trade secrets that they don’t want other companies to know. But that’s a disadvantage for the community, who need to know if [the cable] will be laid in their area.”

The City’s Cable Office recommended earlier this month that the Council “direct staff to engage in negotiations with CenturyLink regarding a cable franchise.” Its March 13 report states that CenturyLink “must adequately address the following issues,” which included culturally diverse programming, “providing comparative cable services throughout the entire City within a reasonable time and in an equitable manner,” and addressing public concerns expressed by Rhodes and a group of “active advocates” over CenturyLink’s “30 percent” plan.

Cable companies make millions of dollars monthly “on what we pay for cable,” said Rhodes. For three decades his channel has provided “culturally specific programming” on cable, and he understands that if you want cable, you have to pay for it.

“Cable is important. The African community uses it to connect with their community.” But he wants “full distribution to all communities” as well as making it affordable to all.

“I do think competition in the marketplace could be good for the subscribers, not only here in Minnesota but around the country. But when you look at only two or three cable companies having the whole market for themselves that limits competition,” he stated.

Rhodes concluded that the community “should be fully aware” of what CenturyLink is seeking, as well as how the City is handling it.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to