Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The City of Missoula moved closer this week to finalizing a franchise agreement with TDS Metrocom to provide cable and broadband service to area customers.

The agreement, long in the making, is expected to be finalized next Monday, giving Missoula residents a choice between Charter and TDS once the company builds out its network.

Brian Grogan, a consultant hired by the city, said TDS has agreed to the terms of the city's agreement, which runs for 10 years and includes a 5% franchise fee for revenue earned by TDS from local cable television.

Charter, which has been offered a similar agreement, has not yet agreed to the terms.

“Back in 2003, the city adopted a franchise for Charter. It was a 15-year contract that actually expired in 2018,” Grogan said. “At that time, the council agreed to extend that for a period of time until we can accomplish a renewal.”

Grogan said the city sent Charter a draft document to accomplish that renewal and is still working for resolution. During that time, TDS announced its plans to enter the Missoula market.

TDS was given the same contract provided to Charter.

“The goal the city had was to have nearly identical documents so no company was provided an unfair advantage,” Grogan said. “We would grant them both similar authorization to compete for customers.”

The agreement with TDS includes a $50,000 performance bond and two local channels available to Missoula Community Access Television to broadcast local content. The 5% franchise fee on cable television does not include broadband service.

Grogan said federal law prohibits the city from imposing a franchise fee on broadband revenue. He said the city remains hopeful that Charter will complete its agreement with the city. The agreement with TDS will set the standard moving forward.

“We're hopeful it will lead to some accelerated negotiations with Charter,” he said. “We have no goal to treat any of these operators in a more favorable or more burdensome manner. With this new contract having been adopted, we'd be quick to get to the table and complete the Charter renewal.”

TDS plans to connect more than 35,000 homes and businesses in the greater Missoula area to tis fiber network. The company will also provide all-digital TV services, TV+ and a variety of phone options.

Competition with Charter could benefit pricing and improve customer service, city officials believe. The arrival TDS marks the first time Missoula has had a competitive cable provider, so long as Charter finalizes its agreement.

“Our goal will be to have them each run concurrently and expire in 10 years so we don't have to duplicate this process year over year,” Grogan said. “We can deal with both of them simultaneously, in the event there are still cable franchises in 10 years. The industry is evolving quickly, and we'll have to see if we have continued cable franchising.”