[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting to correct a headline error.]
More than 200 Columbia residents attended five workshops held earlier this week to provide input on the city’s ca-ble franchise renewal process.
Many voiced concerns about rate increases, the availability of high-definition service and support for local public access channels.
The city’s current cable contracts with Mediacom Communications Corp. and Charter Communications, Inc., will expire in January 2006 and are respectively worth $156 million and $7.8 million, according to The Buske Group, a cable consulting firm based in Sacramento, Calif. Randy Van Dalsen and Sue Buske led the process and their firm is assisting the city with the franchise renewal process.
The workshops, held on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Daniel Boone City Building and Hickman High School, drew representatives from government agencies; non-profit, cultural, volunteer and social service organizations; as well as education professionals, business leaders and members of the public.
“One of the things you, as citizens, need to know is the services your community gets in exchange for this agree-ment,” Buske said in opening one of the Wednesday sessions.
The city’s current cable franchise with Mediacom and Charter has been in place since 1989.
Bertrice Bartlett, a Mediacom subscriber, said she was primarily worried about the possibility of rate increases. “What I’m concerned about is that once the franchise is made there’s no consumer protection,” she said.
Many participants were more interested in what cable companies could do to help them get their message out to the community.
Some participants said cable should provide a diversity of viewpoints to counteract the influence of large media companies who choose what to cover and what to ignore.
“I thought (the workshop) would be a great opportunity for us to do community outreach,” said Tessa Foris, a social worker for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Columbia.
She hopes her organization can use cable in the future to encourage more Columbia residents to volunteer.
Beth Pike, a freelance video producer and director, helped organize the sessions and is a member of the city’s cable task force.
Pike became a member of the task force as a result of her interest in public access television and was involved in establishing Columbia Access Television/Channel 3. She hopes the impending franchise agreement will strengthen funding for public access television in Columbia.
“(Mediacom or Charter) should have been providing public access all along and were out of compliance with it,” Pike said.
Buske said her firm will also conduct random telephone surveys of Columbia residents in the next two to three weeks.
She reminded participants that if the city makes customer service a priority, franchise renewal provides the op-portunity to establish minimum customer service guidelines. Cities can not cap rates because cable is deregulated, Buske said, but can ensure that residents are notified of rate increases and given the opportunity to cancel or change their service before increases take effect.
Pike said she was pleased with participation in the workshops.
“We had a really diverse group of people throughout all the sessions,” Pike said. “It seems like we’ve really tapped into the entire public and it’s good when you get a variety of interests.”
The Buske Group has hired an outside firm who will conduct 400 random telephone surveys of Columbia’s residen-tial cable subscribers in April.