High Speed Internet in Lexington

I submitted this article to the Minuteman because I didn't see any reporters, however Eva Heney did write an article so they didn't publish this one. The two articles are different, though, so I thought it would be useful to put this one on the web. --Jon

Cablevision Threatens To Delay Upgrade

On August 12, the Selectmen held a hearing that had three main purposes: to review Cablevision's compliance with its license, to review technological developments, and to hear comments and complaints from the public. In addition to the Selectmen, chaired by Peter Enrich, the meeting was attended by the Cable TV and Communications Advisory Committee, chaired by Jane Gharibian; representatives of Cablevision; and about 15 or 20 members of the public.

It quickly became apparent that the members of the public who attended represented a loosely organized, grassroots group trying to get high speed Internet in Lexington. Most had signed a petition on the web at http://www.pobox.com/~jdreyer/ipcable/. The license in question, a five year license that was granted two years ago, contains no language about Internet access, so the lack of Internet access via Cablevision is not a compliance issue. However, since one purpose of the meeting was to hear comments from the public, it was open for discussion.

David Green of Cablevision discussed a planned upgrade of the system. This upgrade will cover 37 Massachusetts Cablevision towns as well as Boston, and is planned to take place over the next three years. Once a town is upgraded, it will have better reception, Internet access, more channels, video on demand, and potentially telephone service. At first, Green suggested that Lexington might be upgraded in 1998 or early 1999, but then he held out what he thought was a carrot: if the Selectmen negotiate a new contract, Cablevision could offer Lexington one of the early slots in the upgrade. Once started, the upgrade would take about two months. But the Selectmen, the Committee, and the public clearly interpreted the putative carrot as a stick, because of the implicit threat (later made explicit) that towns with contracts would get top slots. Since there are still three years on the current contract, Lexington is at a disadvantage compared to towns whose contracts are expiring, three of which are very close to agreement with Cablevision, and another ten or so of which could soon follow.

The members of the public were asked for their comments. All comments were on the subject of Internet access; in fact many people said they are not currently subscribers but would subscribe to whatever service offers high speed Internet access at a reasonable price. Many pointed out the high concentration of technical people in town, including many Internet pioneers, suggesting that Lexington had unusually high demand even compared with Cablevision's other affluent towns. They were frustrated with Cablevision's pace on the upgrade, given that MediaOne subscribers have had Internet access for years. One asked whether other providers had been invited to compete; Julian Bussgang of the Committee said that they had advertised a call for non-exclusive access, and that MediaOne didn't respond, and RCN is negotiating with the town. Bell Atlantic intends to offer high speed Internet on telephone lines, using DSL. Many were anxious for such competitors to come into town, not only because they might sign up with these competitors, but also because the presence of a competitor might speed up Cablevision's upgrade. One questioned whether Cablevision is even competent to offer Internet access. A few pointed out that, by focusing on contract renewal for scheduling of the upgrade, Cablevision would be denying itself the increased revenue from high-demand towns like Lexington. One suggested that neighborhoods might even take the issue into their own hands, networking themselves and sharing a high speed pipe.

There was some discussion of applicable federal laws; the law makes a clear distinction between cable TV, which is regulated, and telecommunications, e.g. Internet, which is not. A town currently must renew its license with its current cable TV provider unless the provider does not fulfill the current license, and by law such license must not include telecommunications. There is some wiggle room, however; a town may require an upgrade to improve TV service that would just happen to allow the cable provider to offer Internet service.

Cablevision does not want to upgrade the I-net, the institutional network already in place that provides telecommunications for the schools and town buildings. Cablevision suggested that I-net functionality might be offered on the upgraded main system, obviating the need for a separate I-net. Clearly the I-net will be an issue in the next contract.

There was also some discussion about the emergency alert system, a complaint by the Committee about a late fix to a noise problem, and other compliance issues. Someone asked why residents of Drummer Boy Green get a favorable rate but LHA residents do not. [I originally attributed this question to David Kanter, but that was my error. --Jon] Green's answer was that it was a "business decision."

Bussgang wrapped up the meeting by saying that the Committee will take written comments from the public until the end of August. Green attempted a conciliatory note, but Enrich maintained that there was "no misunderstanding, just a divergence of views," and that Cablevision's position tying contract renewal to the upgrade schedule was of "tremendous concern."

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Jon Dreyer