Cable deal the first step

Did the city – and by extension, the Bainbridge Island community – get a good deal? Will transfer of the local cable television franchise to AT&T Broadband serve island consumers?

Not everyone is convinced. Some folks are irked that the agreement grants a “monopoly” on use of public-access channel 6 to Bainbridge Island Broadcasting. Others fear the appearance of a telecom industry giant – bringing with it an unprecedented convergence of entertainment and marketing interests – heralds dilution of our local retail and service base.

Assuming the former is true, we’re not sure it’s a bad idea; we trust BIB will be a good gatekeeper, providing content that’s appropriate to community standards.

To the latter, it’s true that in a wired world, with cut-rate merchandise just a few mouse clicks away, we run the risk of forgetting our local merchants.

At the same time, with telecommuting and home-based entrepreneurship so important to the island economy and environment, the promise of wider access to broadband technology – the high-speed transmission of voice, data and video information so central to today’s commerce – is welcome.

With the cable deal in place, perhaps we should attempt to further define the city’s role in telecom issues; in an era of industry deregulation, it’s less than we might hope. Indeed, the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 largely neutered local authorities’ ability to regulate use of public rights of way; in sitting down with AT&T Broadband, city officials discovered that, had they found the franchise transfer unacceptable, they would have had to approve it anyway as long as the company wasn’t financially or technically deficient.

Where does that leave us? Consumer-interest advocates argue that cities must try to reclaim their place at the telecommunications table, treating high-speed access for all residents as a goal, and high-speed data wiring as infrastructure. Establish community-wide “master plans” to guide improvements and set clear standards, with an underlying goal of providing choice among competing services and providers.

“We’re entering a period akin to the early days of electrification,” one advocate of “civic networking” wrote recently, “where local governments realized that they couldn’t sit by and let the market take care of everything.”

The components of a community master plan are as varied as the imagination allows. Might we require fiberoptic connections in new subdivisions? Make line upgrades part of a future franchise agreement with our telephone provider? Form local improvement districts to bring high-speed service “the last mile” to remote neighborhoods, letting consumers bypass the cable company?

Challenging notions all, in which our city would have to take the lead. Recall the consensus at this year’s Economic Vitality Conference – if we want telecommunications improvements, it’s time for a “Do It Ourselves” approach.

A telecom master plan would be the place to start.

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