The relationship between a town’s government and its cable company is often uneasy. Cable companies often hold regional monopolies — only 20% of Americans have a choice of high-speed broadband provider — so it’s easy for the telcos to extract concessions from local government in return for begrudgingly upgrading the local network.
But local governments do wield some power, so it’s not an entirely one-way relationship. Nowhere demonstrates this better than the town of Andalusia, Alabama, where Mayor Earl Johnson is squaring up for a fight with Mediacom.
Mediacom has a franchise agreement to offer cable and Internet service within the city, thanks to its 2016 takeover of the local cable company, Andalusia TV Cable. But Johnson says that since Mediacom took over, service has been tanking.
“For the entire time that I have been mayor, I have not received as many complaints about anything as I have received about the cable and broadband service from Mediacom,” Johnson told the city council last week, according to the local paper. “Whatever it is that they’re doing here, they need to make some changes…they operate here because we let them. As a city government we can’t tell them or make them do anything. But we can locate someone who is an expert on broadband and Internet who can tell us what we can do.”
Johnson touched on something that governments are starting to work out: Although telecoms providers are private companies, they make extensive use of public rights of way in order to offer their service. Government has a duty to ensure that those rights of way are being utilized as efficiently as possible, and if they’re not, to offer an alternative to their citizens.
“I don’t know of anything else to do but to start asking questions and find out,” Johnson said. “We need enough broadband to provide our people with what their needs are and we don’t have it right now. People are paying for services that they are not getting them.
He also mentioned the new big fear of telecoms, that the city’s utilities department could easily handle running a municipal broadband system. Local municipal broadband is an increasingly popular option that has been shown to work, but obviously poses an existential threat to the established cable companies. Studies have shown that prices fall and service improves when a competitor comes into town, so maybe Johnson should keep asking questions, and Mediacom’s service might suddenly get better.