By Anne-Marie Mickelsen
As new owners of a cable company, Provo City officials want membership in the Utah Cable Television Association.
But they probably won”t get it.
The head of the group, Steve Proper, is also AT&T”s director of franchising and local government relations. Proper said the association”s board would review Provo”s application. Approval, however, seems unlikely.
AT&T has been one of the major forces opposing Provo”s venture into the cable business. The sides continue to face off over differing views on the future of local cable services.
Provo”s vision sees every resident having access to high-speed Internet, state-of-the-art phone service and cable TV.
City officials see Provo as a frontrunner in what is rapidly becoming a hot trend — city-owned and -operated telecommunication services.
AT&T sees things differently. The company provides Provo residents with a combined high-speed Internet, phone and cable TV service. And they want a future with no competition from their regulator — Provo City.
Membership in the association is the latest issue in the ongoing battle over Provo”s cable plans. The City Council voted in December to approve a financial plan for the telecom service. They also hired King Comm, a business based in Salt Lake City and Mapleton, Utah County, to run Provo Cable until the Council votes on finalizing the project later this year.
The controversy surrounding the proposed $33 million city-wide telecommunications network started when the Council voted to allow Mayor Lewis Billings to purchase the financially unstable Provo Cable in October 1999.
AT&T, along with eight other organizations, formed a coalition called Utah Citizens Against Bigger Government and Higher Taxes. The coalition, spearheaded by AT&T, launched a massive public relations campaign designed to inform Provo residents of the city”s foray into the telecommunications world.
Fliers and television commercials solicited residents to, “Tell the Mayor and the City Council to STOP before they spend $40 million of our money!”
AT&T officials are concerned that the city may not be able to be a fair regulator and a competitor at the same time.
“It is impossible for a city to fairly regulate AT&T Broadband while competing against AT&T,” said Barb Shelley, regional director of communications for AT&T Broadband.
Some residents are also concerned.
“In history books it”s called fascism…but today it”s called public-private partnering,” said Provo resident Barbara Whiteley.
Paul Venturella, Provo City telecommunications director, said the city would try to solve the conflict of interest by hiring a private firm to manage the telecommunications network.
In addition, the City Council passed an ordinance with specific guidelines in an effort to create a “level competitive playing field.” The ordinance requires the city to pay the same franchise fees as AT&T and outlines a process in case of potential disputes.
But for AT&T, the field is still not level enough.
“Cities don”t have to pay taxes and their telephone services are not regulated by the Public Service Commission,” Shelley said. “That gives the city of Provo an unfair advantage.”
Venturella said the city would ensure the network operates as if it were a private entity.
The revenue from the network will go to three places.
First, it will pay back the money that was used to build it.
Second, ten percent of the money will go toward the city”s general fund.
“This will help keep taxes down,” Venturella said.
Third, revenues will go toward a renewal fund for system upgrades to maintain the newest technology possible.
“It is important because it will give Provo a high-speed network of the future,” Venturella said.
The proposed network would give residents a three to five megabit Internet connection, and businesses a gigabite ethernet connection.
The city”s concern does not rest solely with jumping on the technology bandwagon. Leaders have economic considerations as well.
“An indication of whether we are key economic movers is if the community is linked to the information superhighway,” said Kevin Garlick, Energy Department director.