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City Council takes more time to consider franchise with new cable TV provider

The clock is ticking on the City of Missoula to consider and approve a proposed cable franchise that would compete with the city’s only cable TV provider in Charter-Spectrum.

TDS Metrocom was one of two new cable providers to contact the city and express interest in the Missoula market, along with Vast. But Vast never completed the process and TDS is willing to invest $46 million to lay its network and wants approval before year’s end.

City Attorney Jim Nugent on Monday said the TDS request marks the first time Missoula has ever had a competitive cable franchise enter the market. Competition could benefit pricing, just as it has at Missoula Montana Airport on ticket fares.

“One of the things TDS is concerned about is whether they’ll get timely services (from the city),” Nugent said. “They’re worried about being able to keep moving forward. They are hoping to have this approval and the cable TV franchise by the end of the calendar year.”

TDS Metrocom contacted the city earlier this year to begin the franchise process. The contract is pending approval by the full City Council and, if awarded, would allow TDS to compete directly with Charter.

But the City Council isn’t known for its speed. It first heard the request two weeks ago and isn’t expected to take any action for another two weeks. Typically, City Council has one week of public comment before voting, but not in this case.

The council’s only consideration is whether TDS has the financial capacity to complete the task ahead. Nugent said the city’s consultants believe they do.

“If you’ve read the report, the consultants see no basis on which the city can deny TDS’ application due to a lack of financial qualifications,” Nugent said. “We’ve had a lot of contact with TDS.”

While the application marks the first time a competitor has sought to enter the market, Nugent said Missoula had three small cable providers at one time. However, they refused to merge and new technology rendered them all obsolete.

The city has deep ordinances regulating cable franchises, but they’re old, he added.

“Usually you don’t see much action in this area,” Nugent said. “We have informed everyone, including Charter-Spectrum, TDS and Vast, that there could be three companies participating. We don’t anticipate Vast will follow up any further.”

TDS was recently approved for a franchise in both Spokane and Billings.

“The real item these cable companies are after is the high-speed Internet,” Nugent said. “Under federal law and the FCC, they can get their foot in the door and have access to the right-of-way by having a cable TV franchise.”

TDS would also deliver high-speed Internet, entertainment and telephone services if approved by the city. It would take roughly 24-48 months to build out the $46 million system.

Cable TV provider TDS looks to enter Missoula market, lay $46M fiber system