CenturyLink cutting cord on cable TV in north suburbs

CenturyLink is pulling out of the cable TV business in the north suburbs, leaving Comcast as the sole hard-wired television option.

The North Suburban Communications Commission and its nine member cities are close to finalizing a franchise settlement with CenturyLink, which allows the company to wind down service while not being in breach of its five-year franchise contract. It will continue to offer phone and other services to area customers.

Falcon Heights agreed to the settlement at its Aug. 28 meeting, and Arden Hills is scheduled to take up the topic at its Sept. 23 meeting.

According to Dana Healy, executive director of both the commission and CTV, the community media sister organization of NSCC, the settlement could be finalized by early October. The other member cities of Lauderdale, Little Canada, Mounds View, New Brighton, North Oaks, Roseville and St. Anthony are already on board.

CenturyLink stopped actively advertising and selling its Prism TV product in the area this spring, said Healy.

“Because they’re not pushing the product, they’re not fulfilling their end of the agreement within the franchise,” she said.

Franchise agreements are detailed service contracts between utility companies, including cable television providers, which lay out what’s expected of the provider and area jurisdictions. This includes franchise fees, which in the case of the commission, are paid to the member cities. The fees show up on customers’ bills and the companies pay the jurisdictions.

Healy said CenturyLink failed to get a foothold in the area cable TV market, and while subscriber numbers for the company are proprietary information, they’re “really very small numbers in comparison” to Comcast.

Per the settlement, the company’s various agreements with the commission member cities will expire between November 2020 and January 2021 and it’s given up the option to renew the franchises. CenturyLink can opt to end the franchises early with 90 days notice.

CenturyLink said in a written statement it planned to offer its cable service through the end of the franchises, but that could change. 

“CenturyLink Prism TV service remains available to qualified customers who request it in the markets where it is currently offered,” the statement says. “Currently, CenturyLink has no plans to terminate the franchise early; however, this agreement with the North Suburban Cable Commission would allow us to terminate our Prism TV franchise with at least a 90-day notice. As customer demand and market trends for video content changes, we may consider this option.”

 

Changing market

The commission voted to recommend CenturyLink to the member cities in October 2015 on the heels of a bruising franchise renegotiation with Comcast in the preceding years. The entry of a second cable company into the area created the first competitive TV market for member cities in decades.

Still, commission and city officials at the time downplayed CenturyLink’s argument that a competitive market could lead to lower rates for customers, or even better customer service.

Dan Roe, Roseville mayor and North Suburban Communications Commission chair, said beyond the apparent lack of a foothold in the market, it’s unclear why CenturyLink cut bait. He noted the company has also bundled DirecTV satellite television with its phone and other services, with management perhaps choosing that strategy as the strongest.

Still, Roe said, “We are seeing a fairly steady decrease in [cable] subscribership” across the board.

Member cities will share the cost of the settlement, which is $2,000. Roe said the agreement protects the rights of customers, which wouldn’t be accounted for without the settlement.

“[It] at least gives the subscribers some recourse if CenturyLink is doing some practices that aren’t as consumer friendly,” he said. 

The settlement says customers will be able to return or dispose of the company’s equipment at no cost, and that it will provide information on service alternatives.

Shoreview exited the North Suburban Communications Commission at the end of 2014 over the body’s lengthy franchise negotiations with Comcast. It went on to come to its own agreement with Comcast, and never entered into a franchise agreement with CenturyLink.

 

–Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. 

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