by Amanda Schwarze
Changes in Internet and cable television services could soon be noticeable to area residents in Loretto, Independence and Medina.
Discussions and debate about the future of those services took place throughout much of 2013. Now that 2014 is here, many – though not all – of the issues have been resolved.
One question that loomed large for the last part of the year was whether the Lake Minnetonka Communications Commission (LMCC) would have enough member cities to remain viable in the future. At the beginning of 2013, the organization had 17 member cities. It appears that as of the beginning of 2014, it will have 12 member cities. That’s enough to keep the LMCC going, though there will be changes in the organization.
The LMCC and its member cities are at the end of a cable franchise agreement with Mediacom. According to the joint powers agreement that governs the organization, member cities had until Oct. 15 of this year to send notice of an intent to withdraw from the LMCC. The cities of Greenwood, Loretto, Maple Plain, Medina, Minnetrista, Orono, St. Bonifacius, Tonka Bay and Victoria sent notices by the deadline. Since then, Greenwood, Loretto, Maple Plain and St. Bonifacius officials have rescinded their notice and will remain in the organization. The other cities have until Dec. 31 to rescind their notice as well.
The LMCC’s goal had been to negotiate a new franchise agreement with Mediacom before the current one expires at the end of this year, but LMCC Executive Director Sally Koenecke said that a two month extension has been given to the negotiations. Now the group is hoping to have a new franchise in place by the end of February. Koenecke said that one of the main reasons why the LMCC wanted the extension was because of the uncertainty of which cities will be included in the organization’s franchise.
The extension only relates to the LMCC’s negotiations with Mediacom. Cities that sent notice of withdrawal had until Dec. 31 to rescind that notice, Koenecke said. She also said that those that did not rescind their notice are no longer members of the organization as of Jan. 1, 2014.
One side effect of the extension is that all of the cities that were members in 2013, including those that will no longer be members in 2014, will have access to the LMCC channels through the end of February. Koenecke said that while residents living in some non-member cities will be able to view LMCC programming through the extension, they will no longer be able to put any kind of programming on the channels. The LMCC also will stop taping and airing the non-member city council meetings at the end of this year, she said.
While those cities that gave notice of withdrawal still have some time to reconsider that decision, it is clear that some cities, such as Medina and Orono, will certainly be leaving the LMCC. Those cities have signed their own franchise agreements directly with Mediacom, so they will not be a part of the new agreement that is being negotiated on behalf of the LMCC member cities. That also means that those cities will not receive the additional services that the LMCC provides unless they are willing to pay for them.
Medina officials hoped to speed up the extention of broadband infrastructure to under served parts of the city by negotiating a direct contract with Mediacom. The contract went into effect on Dec. 15, and Medina no longer is an LMCC member as of that date.
Mediacom and Medina have agreed on a plan for extending broadband infrastructure to under served parts of the city over the next three years. The plan includes a map dividing Medina into six geographic areas, with the eastern parts of the city getting the necessary infrastructure first and the western parts last. Medina City Hall will be included in the first wave of infrastructure construction. Mediacom hooked up the new Public Works/ Police building at 600 Clydesdale Trail in early November. The city will use franchise fees from cable subscribers in Medina to pay for the infrastructure buildout.
Mayor Liz Weir, of Medina, told viewers of the Dec. 17 Medina City Council meeting that, beginning in January, council meetings will be shown via the city website at ci.medina.mn.us. The new video service was tested in December and will utilize robotic cameras. She expected this arrangement to be less costly for the city than paying the LMCC to tape and cablecast meetings.
Buildout has been a major concern during the franchise agreement negotiations. Out of the 17 cities currently in the organization, the cities of Independence, Medina, Minnetrista, Orono and Victoria are considered under served by Mediacom.
Koenecke said that increasing buildout has always been a top priority for the LMCC during the franchise agreement negotiations and she said it remains one even though Independence seems to be the only under served city that will stay with the organization.
Another goal of the organization now is to maintain services for the member cities that are staying in the LMCC. The organization gets its money through the PEG and franchise fees that Mediacom cable subscribers pay in the member cities. With several of its biggest cities poised to leave the LMCC, there will be quite a bit less revenue coming into the organization in the future.
Koenecke said that the 2014 budget was cut by 40 percent. Some of the savings are coming through staff reductions. After the cuts, the full-time positions of Productions Manager Chris Vogt, Operations Manager Jim Lundberg and Television Production Specialist Tyler Rabe will remain. Koenecke’s position of executive director will be cut from full-time to part-time, but she says that she intends to stay with the LMCC even with the reduction.
The organization will still tape, air and make city council meetings available on demand for member cities. It will also still work with the school districts and non-profit organizations for programming. Koenecke also said that the LMCC will continue to help the residents of member cities resolve customer complaints with Mediacom.
The LMCC is also taking steps to adapt to the future. Members of the organization have come up with a pricing chart so non-member cities have the option of purchasing some services through the LMCC. There are also talks of changing portions of the joint powers agreement. Whatever changes are made in 2014 will be up to the remaining member cities. As of Dec. 20, that appeared to be the cities of Deephaven, Excelsior, Greenwood, Independence, Long Lake, Loretto, Maple Plain, Minnetonka Beach, St. Bonifacius, Shorewood, Spring Park and Woodland.
Contact Amanda Schwarze at firstname.lastname@example.org. Susan Van Cleaf (email@example.com) contributed to this report.