Oceanic Seeks to Renew County Agreement
A once-in-20-year opportunity is coming up for Molokai residents to share feedback and suggestions for the cable television service provided by Oceanic Time Warner Cable. The company is seeking renewal of its Maui County franchise agreement, and the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA), which regulates cable television statewide, is holding a meeting on Molokai this month to gather input on Oceanic’s service. The franchise agreement also includes public access channels as required by law, a service provided in Maui County by Akaku Media.
“We want feedback on the level of service being provided by both Oceanic and Akaku,” said Donn Yabusaki, administrator of the DCCA’s Cable Television Division. “If you have a need, we want to know about it… We’re not promising overnight fixes, but we need a starting point.”
Franchise agreements are required because cable companies use county and state rights-of-way to lay their cable, said Oceanic President Bob Barlow. There is a separate agreement for each county in the state, he said. The renewal process includes identification of community needs through public hearings, reviews the financial viability of the operator, outlines what services they plan to offer and the company’s technical capabilities, according to Barlow.
“We’ve always gone beyond requirements in franchises,” he said. “To keep customers, we have to keep innovative.” He added they try to keep the county franchise agreements similar across the state because “we want to be able to offer the same channels and services in Honolulu as on Molokai.”
The Molokai meeting will be held Aug. 27 from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Kulana `Oiwi in the DHHL/OHA conference room.
Regulation of Services
The DCCA regulates cable television service on a state level. Term lengths of franchise agreements vary, but often last 20 years, according to Barlow.
And while the upcoming meeting focuses on Oceanic’s cable television service, Yabusaki is aware of issues with the broadband Internet service also provided by Oceanic on Molokai.
“People associate broadband with cable television, but federal law restricts us to regulating only the cable television service from Oceanic,” he said.
Yabusaki explained that broadband Internet is federally, rather that state-regulated. But despite the DCCA’s lack of power to regulate broadband service, “it doesn’t mean we’re totally powerless,” said Yabusaki. He said his division still may be able to help residents suffering from slow broadband service on Molokai, and wants Oceanic customers to speak up about any type of concerns at the upcoming meeting.
Current Services Available
Oceanic provides the only cable TV service on Molokai, as well as broadband Internet. The signal is sent to the island via microwave technology – there’s not a physical cable, according to Yabusaki. Because Oceanic uses microwave to carry both TV and Internet signals, there is a lot of competition for bandwidth, causing slower speeds. Molokai and Lanai are the only islands Oceanic doesn’t currently serve with a fiber optic cable, said Barlow.
Once Oceanic’s signal is on Molokai, there are fiber optic lines and coaxial cable that transport it to your home, said Barlow.
“The way we distribute signal once it gets on island is the same as other islands,” he said. It’s the way it gets here that’s different.
For TV, there are also two satellite service options for Molokai: Direct TV and Dish, said Yabusaki. In satellite technology, “their signal literally comes straight out of the sky,” he explained, so there’s no need for local infrastructure.
Another company, Sandwich Isles, has a contract to provide Internet and telephone services to Hawaiian Homestead land. Yabusaki said the company has federal funds to provide this service and they have laid a fiber optic cable to Molokai. This allows them to offer higher speed Internet.
One more company, Hawaiian Telcom, also offers Internet and phone service on Molokai. They use DSL technology, which runs over existing phone lines, according to Yabusaki. But he said one disadvantage of this technology is the signal weakens as it gets farther from the local facility.
Ensuring Public Benefit Programming
As part of the franchise agreement, cable companies like Oceanic are required by federal law to set aside channels to support public, education and government uses, according to the Federal Communications Commission. For Maui County, that service is provided nonprofit organization Akaku Maui Community Television. But Akaku President and CEO Jay April said their programming via cable television channels 52, 53, 54, 55, and 56, may be in jeopardy of having some of their programs cut.
“It’s important that cable companies preserve public benefits into the future,” said April.
However, recently it seems that these public benefits are “under attack by Time Warner,” according to April. For example, one of Akaku’s educational channels was switched from analog channel 56 to a digital channel –channel 356, a place April describes as a “digital Siberia.” Viewers would not be able to access the channel unless they obtained a separate digital cable box.
Akaku plans to host information meetings within communities across Maui County to educate the public before the renewal of the franchise, said April. Akaku’s hopes for the future is that Oceanic and the state will protect public benefits and not allow such channel switching to occur, he added.
Dispatch reporter Eileen Chao contributed to this story.