Council plans to leave new broadband provider in Missoula | Local News
First garbage hauling became competitive in the Garden City, and now it’s the turn of high-speed internet.
The Missoula City Council is set to approve direct broadband competition in Missoula for the first time ever.
On Wednesday, the council’s public works committee held a Sept. 19 public hearing to seek input on a proposal by Wisconsin-based TDS Metrocom to be allowed to have a franchise here.
The company, which already operates in Spokane and Billings, wants to spend about $46 million over two years to build a fiber optic network in Missoula.
Currently, Spectrum (formerly called Charter Communications) is the city’s only cable TV, Internet, and broadband phone provider, and has had a monopoly on them for decades.
About 30 years ago, there were several cable companies in Missoula, but each served its own geographic neighborhood and did not compete with each other.
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Brian Grogan, a consultant hired by the city to work on negotiating a contract with TDS and Spectrum, told city council that consumers would benefit from competition.
“You have an existing operator, Charter Communications,” he said. “Their contract, however, dates back to 2003. As we all know, cable TV has changed a lot in 20 years with streaming services and new apps.”
He said TDS Metrocom had a good reputation.
“The franchise before you (TDS) tries to reflect some of the new laws in place today and tries to reflect the competitive atmosphere in which cable television is offered.”
Grogan thinks prices will come down, even if only a little.
“A big part of what TDS will bring to the city is broadband competition,” he explained. “The idea is that you will have a new fiber provider in town to compete with Charter. May the best company win. Usually consumers win when there is competition and they both strive to provide the best product. This often leads to better service, at more competitive prices.
In March, the Montana Public Service Commission voted 3-2 to break a decades-long monopoly on garbage hauling in Missoula County held by Republic Services. A new competitor, L&L Site Services, successfully argued to the commission that it would offer competitive prices to consumers.
Grogan said that could happen with broadband prices.
“It’s usually a good thing when we have more than one choice, especially with a quasi-utility like cable TV or broadband service,” he said.
Jim Nugent, the city attorney, said TDS Metrocom was eager to start digging trenches for its lines.
“They’re going to take a few years to build up, but they’d like to go,” he said.
In exchange for using public rights-of-way such as city streets, alleys and parks to build its network, TDS Metrocom will have to agree to contribute 5% of its annual gross revenue from cable services to the city’s general fund. Spectrum pays similar fees, and that money funds Missoula Community Access Television. Another 1.5% of TDS Metrocom’s annual gross cable revenue will go to a fund set up by the city for the purchase of cameras and other costs associated with streaming city council meetings.
“That’s the maximum amount allowed by law,” Grogan told the committee.
The company will also have to provide some local channels for high definition programming. This way, you will be able to see city council meetings that are not blurry.
“It’s important because no one wants to watch substandard shows,” Grogan said.
He said TDS Metrocom has “very strong” customer service standards.
“Right now, we’re hoping the competition will fix all the customer service issues,” he said. “Usually when people have a choice, if they’re unhappy with one company, they go to another.”