Copyright 2005 Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Copyright 2005 The Providence Journal, R.I.
The Providence Journal, R.I.
February 10, 2005, Thursday
A state regulator has approved an agreement that requires Cox Communications to provide free closed-circuit video service and Internet access to municipal government buildings and other agencies.
Cox has agreed to establish a network that city and town officials can use to carry video feeds between fire stations, police stations, town halls, schools and other agencies. They will also be able to link their computer systems, or receive a basic level of Internet access.
Cox, which provides cable service in 38 of Rhode Island’s 39 communities, estimates the value of the services at $ 1.2 million annually.
As a result of the agreement, Cox will no longer be obligated by state cable rules to string an entirely separate wire throughout its service territories to provide closed-circuit video services to municipalities. The company will be allowed to use its existing fiber-optic network.
“It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to make one company provide two wires when one wire would do it,” said Thomas F. Ahern, administrator of the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, who gave final approval to the deal.
There will be a six-month phase-in period in which Cox will work with the state DPUC to iron out details, such as how to promote the new network to potential users.
The agreement between the cable giant and the Advocacy Section of the agency concludes a five-year process that included more than two years of negotiations, several public hearings and demonstrations of the technology. The Advocacy Section represents the interests of consumers.
Approval of the settlement took an unusually long time. The deal to provide the network was reached in the fall of 2003, and Ahern approved it on Jan. 27.
Addressing the two-year delay, he wrote in a footnote to the 104-page decision that the “proceedings in this docket were many and the record extremely voluminous and complex.” He said he took additional time to “consider the complicated issues.”
The free service has some limitations. Closed-circuit video feeds are one-way only. If a town wants a two-way interactive “teleconference,” it will have to pay for it. And the Internet access is limited to 128 kbps, which is less than one-tenth of the speed Cox offers to its residential customers. Faster speeds are available at a price.
When state regulators doled out cable-television franchises more than 20 years ago, they required the cable companies to give something back to the communities.
One of those givebacks was the establishment of an “institutional/industrial network,” or an I-Net, in each cable-service area. The I-Net was to be a television network entirely separate from the one providing traditional cable programming. It was supposed to link municipal buildings, including schools, hospitals, fire stations, city halls and any “significant community institution.” The network was to have up to 21 channels.
But the potential of the I-Net was never realized. Cox has said there was never much interest in the I-Net, and the company stopped maintaining it in service areas where it wasn’t used. Some critics have argued that cable companies didn’t do enough to promote the I-Net, and few communities even knew it was supposed to exist.