Cable discussion runs on fast track

The word for Bainbridge Island’s approach to AT&T is “gingerly.”

While city officials believe significant gains could result if AT&T replaces Northland as the city’s cable TV operator, it wants to make sure that some present advantages are not lost in the process.

“We have been getting calls from people urging us not to do anything to get in the way,” said city manager Lynn Nordby. “There are things AT&T could offer that Northland simply could not.”

Northland announced earlier this month that it plans to sell its Bainbridge Island and Suquamish-Kingston cable television franchises to AT&T Broadband, a subsidiary of the telecommunications giant. The island franchise has approximately 5,000 customers, with 1,500 more in North Kitsap.

Transfer of the franchise requires city approval, and must happen quickly. Under terms of the AT&T-Northland sale agreement, the deal has to close by the end of the year.

According to Mayor Dwight Sutton, the city hopes to clarify four issues with AT&T before approving the franchise transfer:

* Assurances about the future of Bainbridge Island Broadcasting;

* A commitment to offer broad-band internet access;

* A resolution of the long-standing dispute between Northland and the city over a utility tax;

* Adoption of service standards.

The city council last week indicated that the year-end time frame was workable.

“Their attitude is to get something done,” said Nordby.

But Northland is still operating under an outmoded 1970 franchise agreement between the city of Winslow and George Gregg, who sold the system shortly thereafter; Northland purchased the franchise in 1983.

While the franchise was renewable for 25 years, there has been some dispute about whether an effective renewal was ever accomplished.

The dispute was complicated by all-island incorporation in the early 1990s, when the city of Bainbridge Island was created.

Northland and the city negotiated a new franchise agreement in 1996, and it went through two city council readings. But for reasons of which Nordby is unaware, the issue was pulled from the council’s agenda, and the agreement was never finalized.

Rather than simply approve a transfer of the status quo with all of its uncertainties, the city wants to negotiate a new agreement with AT&T, Nordby said.

Nordby met last Friday with representatives from Northland, who promised to convey the city’s position to AT&T, which did not attend.

“We told them we were not going to ask for the moon, and thought these were things on which reasonable people can agree,” Nordby said.

The city had not received a reply from AT&T as of Monday.

AT&T spokesman Steve Kipp said Monday that he had no information about the status of the negotiations, and that it is not AT&T’s policy to comment on such issues until a specific agreement is in place.

BIB is No. 1

The top item on the city’s agenda is Bainbridge Island Broadcasting, which provides a limited diet of local-interest programming on Channel 6.

AT&T has agreed to at least maintain the status quo. When it sought Kitsap County approval to transfer of the Suquamish-Kingston franchise, County Commissioner Chris Endresen demanded a commitment regarding BIB.

In response, AT&T agreed that it would honor a “Channel Use Agreement” that BIB and Northland executed in early November, just before the sale was announced.

“That’s a good sign and an indication of Chris’s diligence,” said BIB executive director Wendy Johnson. “That acknowledges BIB as part of the whole dynamic.”

What BIB wants, though, is to go far beyond the agreement, which simply guarantees it 12 hours daily of time on channel 6.

“If we had a real franchise agreement, we could have so much more programming than we have now,” said Johnson.

She not only wants to continue broadcasting city council meetings and other public forums, but also to provide educational programming through the school district and various forms of community-oriented programming, such as pieces by and about the city’s non-profit organizations.

The city also wants AT&T to offer broadband internet access to its Bainbridge customers. The company provides the service in some of its other locations, but has been non-committal about whether it will do so on Bainbridge.

“That’s something in which a lot of people have a real interest, and I think it would be instructive for AT&T to hear that,” Mayor Sutton said.

The utility tax dispute stems from language in the 1970 agreement, which imposed a franchise fee equal to 4 percent of the franchisee’s income, but said the city would impose no other taxes.

Based on that provision, Northland has refused to pay a 1999 utility tax that the city imposed. It continues to collect the tax, saying that if it ultimately prevails on the issue, it will refund the amounts to its customers.

Service standards were once a matter of significant concern to Bainbridge customers, but are becoming less important because of the competition from satellite TV, Nordby said.

“If cable wants to remain a viable alternative, it’s got to provide the service,” Nordby said.

While the packages and pricing offered to viewers are not within the city’s control, Nordby said his general impression is that AT&T includes slightly larger viewing packages at a slightly lower cost than does Northland.

“There are a lot of advantages that can come from AT&T’s size and resources,” he said. “We hope to be able to realize them.”

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