AT&T can do a lot, but will it?

AT&T can do things as a cable TV provider that other companies cannot, and is therefore the best franchise-holder for Bainbridge Island, some say.

“They have the capital flow that we don’t, and can suit island demands better than Northland,” said Mark Graves, Northland’s Bainbridge manager at Wednesday’s city council meeting.

But AT&T won’t commit to telling the city exactly what it will do before it actually has the franchise, a posture that puts off some city officials.

“The present agreement is unacceptable,” city council member Norm Wooldridge said. “Transfer of the existing agreement may be fantastic from their standpoint, but it’s totally unacceptable from ours.”

AT&T Broadband, a successor to TCI CableVision, wants to buy Northland Cable’s Bainbridge Island franchise and its 5,000 subscribers for an undisclosed amount of money. And it says the deal must close by Dec. 26. “The funds are only available for this purchase until the end of the year,” AT&T representative Kathy Nelson told the city council.

“If we can’t do the deal this year, we may be back in some future year, but we may not.”

The city must approve the franchise transfer. The council wants to use that approval requirement as a lever to update the franchise agreement, which was originally issued by the City of Winslow to George Gregg in 1970, when all the cable system did was relay Seattle programs to the south and west side of the island, where reception was poor.

Council members are putting together a list of issues to take to AT&T early next week. While Wooldridge declined to specify his issues, he said all the provisions he seeks are contained in other AT&T franchise agreements in other communities.

The principal issues raised at Wednesday’s council meeting involve internet access and the status of Bainbridge Island Broadcasting, which is looking not only for a guarantee of a broadcast channel, but also for funding.

“We want a pass-through of 80 cents per month,” BIB executive director Wendy Johnson said. “That’s based on a poll taken by the Bainbridge Economic Council showing that residents would be willing to pay a dollar a month for BIB programming.”

In a pass-through arrangement, the cable operator includes the charge in its monthly bill, then funnels the money to the local-access programming entity.

BIB receives no funding from Northland, either by grant or pass-through.

Johnson said BIB would also like a grant from AT&T, either in the form of direct per-subscriber payments or in the form of equipment and technical support, on the basis that locally originated programming benefits the cable company in its efforts to compete with satellite television, which cannot offer local programming.

AT&T told the council Wednesday that it would be willing to talk about those issues, but not until after the new year and after the franchise is transferred.

“We are not willing to negotiate a new franchise agreement before the transfer,” Nelson said.

City Administrator Lynn Nordby got some further clarification Thursday in a telephone conversation with Janet Turpen, AT&T’s regional director of franchising.

“They don’t want to operate on a deadline because they worry that the city may drag its feet and put them in default,” Nordby said. “And we don’t have a very good record on that score.”

Nordby said that the city did negotiate a franchise amendment with Northland in 1996, but the City Council failed to pass it.

Nordby questions whether the approval requirement provides much of a hammer, saying that as he understands federal law, the city can only determine whether the transferee is financially and technically capable of operating under the terms of the franchise.

“It would be ridiculous to argue that AT&T can’t operate under the 1970 franchise,” he said. “I could operate under that franchise.”

Wooldridge said the city’s bargaining power stems from its desirability as a service area.

“Our prime location puts us in a good position to negotiate a reasonable outcome,” he said. “AT&T is not the only game in town.”

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