Oceanic Seeks to Continue Maui County Service
Most people click the TV remote to find their favorite programs every day without thinking twice about it, but there is a lot that goes into that service — provided for Maui County exclusively by Oceanic Time Warner Cable. Oceanic operates under a franchise agreement, renewed approximately every 20 years and regulated by the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA), and the Maui County franchise expires at the end of this year.
Last August, a hearing was held on Molokai by the DCCA to collect initial feedback on Oceanic’s service. Oceanic took that information and used it to develop an application for their franchise renewal, according to Catherine Awakuni, cable TV administrator for the DCCA. Now, Oceanic has filed their application with the DCCA and a second hearing was held on Molokai two weeks ago, among others in communities around the county.
Franchise agreements cover the use of county and state rights-of-way to lay Oceanic’s cable, as well as identification of community needs through public hearings, reviews the financial viability of the operator, an outline what services they plan to offer and the company’s technical capabilities, among other agreements. Each county in the state has a separate agreement.
Oceanic attorney Brian Kang said Oceanic has kama`aina roots back to 1969, when the company’s predecessor provided 12 channels to the then-rural Oahu community of Mililani.
“Today – nearly 45 years later — Oceanic’s services have grown exponentially, and Oceanic now offers over 400 video and music channels, and provides Maui County residents with innovative cable television, high definition video, voice, broadband Internet, and other services through one of the most technologically-advanced systems in the industry,” said Kang at the hearing.
Supporting Public Programming
Cable providers are federally mandated to set aside a few channels for public, educational and government (PEG) access, and content cannot be controlled by the cable company. But some feel public programming — provided in Maui County by Akaku — is being given low priority by Oceanic.
Dan Emhof, director of operations for Akaku on Molokai, has been an employee of the company for nearly 10 years and called his job “a dream come true and one of the greatest honors in my life.”
Emhof stressed the importance of continued support for the channels by Oceanic, not only as an educational tool but also as a means to share news about Molokai on TV.
Akaku CEO Jay April said Akaku channels give a voice to local communities and allow rural areas to share what matter to them with the rest of the county.
“Dan [Emhof] has given Maui County a much better appreciation of Molokai,” he said.
One of the major changes in how Hawaii residents will view TV that will take place over the next 20 years is the shift from analogue to digital technology.
“During the next franchise period, Oceanic plans to invest further in its system and eventually transition all of the current analog channels to the digital spectrum in phases,” said Kang.
But April is not convinced Oceanic will make that shift with fair consideration to public access programs. He described the migration in terms of “electronic real estate.” Each analogue channel is six megahertz (MHz), he said — or a “definite amount of acreage.” In digital technology, however, “channels” become only conceptual, and you can use those six MHz for many different uses — such as broadband Internet, data, voice or video, said Rick Colletto, Oceanic general manager for Maui County.
“It becomes a more efficient way of providing services,” said Colletto.
Most people won’t be able to tell the difference, but the problem, as April sees it, arises because he feels public access channels are not receiving an equivalent amount of “acreage” as other broadcasts after the switch to digital.
“[OC16, for example] is on the analogue band, repeated in digital and again in high definition,” said April, meaning that the same programming can be found three different places. “That won’t happen for public access — [Oceanic] has no interest in promoting our channels unless they’re required to [because] there’s no economic incentive.”
That incentive could only come from specific language in the franchise agreement — language that April said doesn’t currently exist. He said Oceanic promises to continue its support of public access programs, but the current agreement does not state what exactly that commitment means. Only the DCCA can mandate more specificity, said April.
The transition to digital has already begun, and April hasn’t been happy with the results for PEG channels so far. Last year, he said Oceanic migrated the education channels used by the Department of Education and UH Maui College — analogue channels 55 and 56 — to digital 355 and 356.
“If you don’t have a digital box, you won’t be able to watch it,” said April. “I call it ‘cable Siberia.’”
A so-called “digital box” allows subscribers to view digital programming, but those without the upgraded technology — 49 percent of subscribers on Maui, according to April — can only watch analogue channels. Colletto said Oceanic is also experimenting with a digital converter so customers don’t have to buy the box.
“It’s a digital world now – some cable companies have already switched,” said Colletto. “But we don’t want to make it tough on our customers and on us.”
He said the transition to digital will continue slowly, and 30 days of notice will be given on the channel before each migration is made.
Suki Halevi, Akaku director of development, said the franchise application does not currently include a plan for Molokai.
“What service exactly will be offered for the next 20 years?” she asked in her testimony.
“Their application is actually quite thin,” said Awakuni of what Oceanic has filed with the DCCA. “They’ll flesh it out along the way.”
Several community members urged the DCCA not to allow a 20-year franchise at all.
“I would not support another 20 year extension because a whole new cable technology could be right around the corner in five years, but we will be paying for the same old [service]…” said Molokai subscriber Moke Kim. “I support their application, but only at five years.”
Howard Selnick, a former media teacher at Molokai High School, agreed.
“In the last years, the only movement of Oceanic to change was when their feet were put to the fire,” he said. “Look at a year to year agreement, or couple-year period – if changes are positive, we’d extend and continue to watch [the company’s] efforts.”
Awakuni said the DCCA has the discretion to determine the length of time the franchise agreement, which — while they normally last 20 years — can also be shorter.
Kim called the overall quality of service provided by Oceanic poor.
“We have extreme difficulty in receiving some services… I could be watching a cable show when the whole station blanks out,” he said.
“Oceanic can be better,” he added. “If people all over [Hawaii and the mainland] can get [good service], what’s wrong with us? Are we a stepchild? Are we so far out of the loop? No.”
Fellow Kalae resident Artice Swingle called the recent Oceanic Internet upgrade in July from microwave technology to the faster fiber optic signal “great,” but said it offered little improvement for some areas like hers.
“One of our friends teaches online classes and Internet services have been so poor it jeopardizes his income,” she testified. “If we want to use the Internet, we get in the car and drive two miles down the road [where service is better]… People who pay for the services, it’s there maybe 50 percent of the time.”
Emhof said some parts of Molokai don’t have access to Oceanic services at all.
“I believe knowledge is power and everyone deserves power,” testified Emhof. “People in rural areas don’t have the option [to subscribe of Oceanic’s services]… I request that every home has the right to fast, reliable Internet.”
Colletto could not say what percentage of Molokai residents don’t have access to cable services, but said most of the island does.
“We have rules about how many homes we pass to build a cable… it’s no small task to build,” he said, adding that if a resident lives five miles out past the last home on a road, they probably won’t have cable access.
“We talk about it all the time… is it a business justification to extend the cable that far?”
Awakuni said the franchise agreement renewal process is still in the early stages. The DCCA will now examine Oceanic’s application and the public feedback received, and will likely request additional information from Oceanic. While Oceanic’s Maui County agreement is due to expire at the end of the year, Awakuni said the DCCA may give an extension if the application process is not complete by the end of the year.
The DCCA welcomes written testimony submitted by Nov. 15 by sending it to: DCCA-CATV, P.O. Box 541, Honolulu, Hawaii 96809 or by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Oceanic’s application can be found at cca.hawaii.gov/catv/files/2013/05/OCEANICAPPLICATIONFORRENEWAL_Maui_20130830.pdf.