Playing poker with AT&T

We islanders are a demanding lot, and that includes our demands for technology. We want our cable television company to offer top-flight service and an expansive (but inexpensive) viewer package, and broad-band internet access. And we want at least one channel for our own local programming.

As the lengthy hearing at Wednesday’s council meeting pointed out, there’s little question that AT&T Broadband, which wants to buy out the Northland cable TV franchise on Bainbridge, is able to satisfy those requirements.

The question left hanging after the meeting, though, is what AT&T is willing to provide. While the company has said it will talk about what the city wants, it says the transaction has to close before Dec. 26, so the city must transfer the franchise first, then begin “good faith negotiations” in January.

As reported elsewhere in this issue, the City Council didn’t warm to that “marry me today and we’ll work it out tomorrow” kind of proposal. It wants assurances now, if not on all of the terms of a new agreement, then at least on some specific provisions.

Even discounting for some posturing, the disagreement seems real. The city, which has been trying for years to update its antiquated 1970 franchise agreement with Northland, thinks the franchise-approval requirement is its best opportunity to get what it wants from AT&T. AT&T thinks that because there isn’t enough time to negotiate a complete new agreement, all talks should be deferred until next year.

As in any poker game, there is considerable uncertainty over how strong each party’s hand may be. While the city does have to approve a transfer, federal law may limit the city to assuring itself that the new operator is technically and financially capable of operating the franchise, criteria that AT&T plainly meets.

On the other hand, AT&T’s stated reason for urgency – corporate budget requirements – is hardly persuasive. Bainbridge offers not only high incomes but an apparently vast appetite for revenue-producing services like high-speed internet access. If the Northland franchise is a good deal for AT&T this year, it will be a good deal next year.

So what to do?

It’s hard to disagree with the current city strategy of trying to get a commitment immediately on certain “core” demands, all of which are apparently contained in AT&T franchises elsewhere. If AT&T does it in Olympia, it should be able to commit quickly that it would do the same for Bainbridge.

On the other hand, accepting the deal as is with the “good-faith bargaining” commitment doesn’t leave the city entirely powerless. While good-faith bargaining is an elusive concept, it’s a term used commonly enough in the law, especially in the labor arena. At the very least, a party bound to bargain in good faith is required to at least seriously consider and reasonably respond to credible proposals. And the obligation to bargain in good faith can be enforced in court.

As a fall-back for the city, we are rather intrigued by Jim Llewellyn’s idea of agreeing to the transfer but shortening the franchise term to two years, leaving plenty of time for good-faith bargaining.

If AT&T is unwilling to accept that deal, that refusal itself may raise plenty of questions about its plans for Bainbridge.

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