MID-HUDSON CABLE GETS ICY RECEPTION IN GREENE COUNTY
(Courtesy of The Greenville News - GreenvilleNews@aol.com)
Andrea Macko, Staff Writer
GREENVILLE - Pioneer Hall was standing room only Monday night for a very controversial public hearing on a proposed franchise agreement between the Town of Greenville and Mid-Hudson Cablevision. And if anyone was in favor of the agreement they certainly didn’t speak up.
The town’s previous contract with the cable provider expired in July 2008 and Monday’s public hearing was the second of its kind since September 2010 when the Town Board agreed ¾ at the demand of residents ¾ to revisit the terms of the proposed 15 year agreement. But while the provisos have changed slightly, the sentiments of residents have not.
“As I said last September at the first renewal contract public hearing… It made no sense to write a 15 year contract then and it doesn’t now,” said Kathleen Whitley-Harm, Greenville resident and co-founder of Concerned Citizens for Better Broadband in Greene County.
The non-exclusive contract between the town and Mid-Hudson is for “video” service only, meaning for cable television and not internet service, explained Pat Johnson, senior municipal consultant with the state Public Service Commission (PSC).
“I think you are all here for the wrong reason,” Johnson told residents, emphasizing that by state law the cable agreement cannot include conditions for internet even though Mid-Hudson provides both.
“Fifteen years is too long for any contract to one service provider. Period,” said Whitley-Harm. “It doesn’t matter is we are talking about cable or broadband or both.”
“And the residents and businesses of this town want no less than a comprehensive and time bound plan to build and provide 100 percent coverage to all unserved or underserved areas of Greenville,” Whitley-Harm added.
According to Mid-Hudson Cablevision President James Reynolds, the issue is economic. Reynolds responded to criticism from Whitley-Harm regarding his company’s refusal to spend a $3.5 million federal grant to expand rural broadband service.
The $3,473,919 Department of Agriculture grant would have allowed Mid-Hudson to expand coverage in Columbia and Greene counties, specifically the towns of Ashland, Jewett, Lexington, Cairo, Catskill, Windham, Coxsackie and New Baltimore in Greene County, and the towns of Taghkanic, Copake, Claverack, Ghent, Chatham, Hillsdale and Austerlitz in Columbia County. The Town of Greenville did not qualify under the USDA’s requirements as an “underserved” community, Johnson said, and therefore expansion in Greenville would not have been covered by the grant funds.
This $3.5 million award required an additional $1.5 million in applicant-provided match, which Reynolds said Monday was a reason the company gave the grant back earlier this month to the USDA. Had they kept the money, the project could have benefited more than 20,000 people, as well as 3,000 businesses and 100 community institutions, according to a statement issued last August by then-Congressman Scott Murphy who assisted Mid-Hudson is acquiring the grant.
“Mid-Hudson Cablevision says they will build their proposed projects in those eight Greene County and seven Columbia County towns without federal funds,” said Whitley-Harm. “But when? And where is the plan?”
The proposed franchise agreement with Greenville calls for Mid-Hudson to expand service line about 8.5 miles around Red Mill Road and surrounding areas. For each mile of new line the company installs, Reynolds said, the cost is more than $25,000 and the town would forfeit $5,000 of its annual franchise fees to help fund the extensions. The franchise fee is three-percent of Mid-Hudson’s gross revenue from Greenville subscribers. On average, the town earns between $12,000 and $13,000 annually.
The PSC does not require a provider to expand service unless there are more than 35 homes per mile of line. Most of the underserved areas of Greenville, including the King Hill Road area, average around 10 to 15 homes per mile. Cedar Lane is another unserved area, dubbed a “dead zone.”
“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Reynolds. “It is a risky investment.”
Town Attorney Tal Rappleyea explained that the reason for a 15 year contract is to give Mid-Hudson more borrowing power with financial lenders.
Before closing the public hearing, Town Supervisor Paul Macko said that Town Board would revisit the franchise fee arrangement and see if more could be applied toward line extensions.
But other concerns from residents stemmed from what they called a “monopoly” Mid-Hudson had on the local cable and internet market, and how a 15 year contract could hinder business with other companies.
“You are never stuck because it is a non-exclusive contract,” said Johnson, noting that if Verizon or Time Warner, for example, wanted to come to Greenville they could at any time.
But Johnson continued to emphasize to residents that the contract was not for internet service and cannot include an stipulations for internet service.
“I want to make that so clear that Stevie Wonder can see it,” said Johnson.
Johnson also noted that if the town were not to sign a new agreement with Mid-Hudson, the previous contract that expired in 2008 would remain in effect indefinitely and Mid-Hudson would be under no obligation to expand service to any area of the town.
“We need a coalition of the willing internet service providers, business, schools, elected officials, the tourism industry and the public to design and then implement a real plan to bring all of Greene County into the 21st century of high speed broadband internet as soon as possible,” said Whitley-Harm. “That effort must start today.”
Whitley-Harm said that Greene County Legislative Chairman Wayne Speenburgh has invited the Concerned Citizens for Better Broadband in Greene County to meet with the legislature so those first steps can begin.