Cable’s future in Nevada County brighter |

Cable’s future in Nevada County brighter

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Second of two parts

The renegotiation of cable franchise deals between telecommunications companies and the cities in Western Nevada County conjures up Biblical comparisons.

In the coming months David – the county and cities of Nevada City and Grass Valley – plans to replace the slingshot and rock with a veritable bazooka when renegotiating franchise agreements with the Goliath-like Comcast, the nation’s largest provider of cable services.

For those charged with combining three different franchise agreements into one all-encompassing document providing cable service to the county’s more than 12,000 households that receive it, the issue becomes this: Just what will Nevada County’s cable landscape look like if, and when, the three entities act as a single unit to sign long-term agreements?

The wish lists are endless: high-speed cable reaching every corner of the county, including areas such as the San Juan Ridge and the Sherwood Forest development near the Nevada County Fairgrounds; public-access channels for government, education and the community; high-speed links between schools, police and fire departments. The price tag, estimated by the county to cost at least $10 million, would be shared by the three entities.

Cable subscribers in Grass Valley, Nevada City and the county already pay 5 percent of the consumer cable bill in the form of a franchise fee for the right to run their lines over the public right of way. The fees are given to cities and folded into each city’s general fund. They often pay for police and fire protection and other vital services.

Under the terms of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, cities are not required to use franchise fees to upgrade cable services or the networks on which they run.

In the last five years, Grass Valley has collected more than $421,000 in franchise fees from the cable company, said Wes Peters, Grass Valley’s finance director. Nevada City has collected nearly $115,000 in that same time span, said City Clerk Cathy Wilcox-Barnes. Grass Valley and Nevada City also receive franchise fees from Pacific Gas and Electric and Waste Management, Inc., and Nevada City receives a fee from the Nevada City Carriage Co.

The vision shared by the county and the two cities charged with hiring a Sacramento-based firm to represent them at the negotiating table with Comcast could be nothing short of a 180-degree change in the way we receive and use cable services.

“The whole concept is, we’ll get more of this together if we work together,” said Steve Monaghan, the county’s chief information officer, who is taking the lead in securing new franchise agreements for Grass Valley, Nevada City and the county.

The Buske Group, a telecommunications consulting firm, could help the community decide what they’d like to see when the new cable franchise agreements are signed.

In the past decade, the group has re-negotiated cable contracts for dozens of California cities, leaving many with several million dollars for capital improvements, scores of new public-access and government channels, and greater Internet access and bandwidth with the installation of new cable lines.

Larry Burkhardt, president of the Nevada County Economic Resource Council, has been part of a formal task force to study some of the county’s needs.

The lack of widespread high-speed cable Internet access is one of the group’s key concerns.

Burkhardt calls the gulf between those who have high-speed cable access, cable television and those who don’t the “last mile” phenomenon. It’s often too expensive for cable companies – even for ones like Comcast, which serves 21 million customers in 41 states and is the nation’s largest provider of cable services – to lay cable in a sparsely populated area or one with rugged terrain.

For example, Burkhardt said, Grass Valley and Nevada City have DSL access, Lake of the Pines has cable modem service, and Lake Wildwood has wireless technology.

“Everybody else is out in the cold,” he said.

That includes people like Paul Norsell, who moved from Lake of the Pines to the Sherwood Forest development late last year.

Like other Lake of the Pines residents, Norsell was served by USMedia, which also serves clients in Alta Sierra with cable and Internet access.

“It was great and had tremendous speed,” said Norsell, who publishes a daily newsletter e-mailed to members of the Nevada County Business Association filled with information on leading economic indicators, excerpts from newspapers and other information for clients.

Norsell estimates spending up to four hours a day on the Internet researching and writing his newsletter from home, which was impossible when he moved to the Sherwood Forest development in November.

Though the 56-unit housing complex is within two miles of the Nevada County Fairgrounds, it’s too far away from the nearest switching station to receive DSL service.

“If you do any business at home, you need at least DSL,” Norsell said, noting cable and T1 lines are faster. Norsell would be reduced to a dial-up connection if he hadn’t bought satellite service upon moving to Sherwood Forest. Dial-up service “is particularly hard, after you get spoiled,” said Norsell, who receives up to 150 e-mails a day.

“If you sit and wait on a dial-up line just to open them, it can drive you nuts.”

Of course, what county residents want and what they will get depends largely on the terms of the merger between AT&T and Comcast, a $47.5 billion merger, which is due to become final within the next week or so.

It will be the latest chapter in a game of musical chairs for cable companies that have served this area. In the last 10 years, the cable company has been changed at least three times.

Paul Chaderjian, communications manager for AT&T Broadband, said the new Comcast changes won’t be immediately recognizable, but the company has expressed an interest in expanding the services already offered by AT&T. A local call center, where bills can be paid and concerns aired, may be brought back to the area.

“Comcast will be making customer services a priority,” he said.

The new franchise agreement could add a community-access element not previously available to those living outside the Nevada City or Grass Valley city limits.

“I’m frustrated, because the county is subsidizing (public access) and I can’t even receive it,” said Walt Fraser, a longtime Alta Sierra resident. “It’s a station that’s supposed to be for us, and half (the county) can’t even receive it.”

The ability to have a say to use what has become a part of the modern Nevada County home is indeed a welcome sight – if and when the opportunity arises.

“This is an opportunity that comes about once in many years and, clearly, this is an opportunity where we can start from zero and give the community what it needs,” Burkhardt said.

Cable Franchise Fees Collected

Nevada City Grass Valley

1997-98 $20,808 1997-98 $74,171

1998-99 $22,952 1998-99 $77,141

1999-00 $22,144 1999-00 $89,140

2000-01 $23,175 2000-01 $90,319

2001-02 $25,341 2001-02 $91,111

Nevada City franchise fee total,

2001-02 fiscal year: $74,171

Grass Valley franchise fee total,

2001-02 fiscal year: $222,657

Source: cities of Grass Valley, Nevada City

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