Renegotiating Oceanic’s Services
Molokai residents are frustrated with Oceanic Time Warner Cable, the island’s only provider of cable television (CATV) and broadband Internet services. Many claim that though they pay the same price as on other islands for Internet, they get only half the speed.
As part of the process to renew Oceanic’s franchise, possibly for the next 20 years, the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA), who regulates CATV statewide, is gathering community input across the islands on Oceanic’s services as well as public access services provided by Akaku Maui Community Television.
“We want feedback on the level of service being provided by both Oceanic and Akaku,” said Donn Yabusaki, administrator of the DCCA’s CATV 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. 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. Oceanic’s current franchise term expires on Dec. 31, 2013.
Dissatisfaction with Oceanic services
While the purpose of the meetings are to gather feedback about Oceanic’s CATV service, many Molokai residents at last week’s meetings had more to say about the company’s broadband Internet services. However, federal law restricts the state from regulating broadband service, and it is only controlled federally through benchmark speeds rather than specific requirements for providers, according to Yabusaki.
Still, Yabasaki urged the community to submit testimony on broadband service, as it is “certain to become a larger issue in the future.”
Last year, a community petition complaining about Oceanic’s poor Internet service garnered almost 100 signatures and was sent to Oceanic headquarters on Oahu, according to Kawela resident Alan Uemura.
In a phone interview with The Dispatch last month, Barlow assured residents that Oceanic was in the process of updating their microwave technology system that sends CATV and broadband signals to Molokai. The upgrades would double current download speeds for customers, according to Barlow.
“We are updating microwave to both Molokai and Lanai and that will remedy some of the issues that we’ve been having,” said Barlow. “I’m confident they’ll be done by the end of the year.” To match the broadband service provided on other islands, he said Oceanic will need to get a fiber optic cable to Molokai, which he predicts will happen within the next six months.
Still, residents are skeptical after Oceanic circulated a letter to customers last year that had promised a similar upgrade all around the islands, but failed to follow through on Molokai.
“We pay the same prices [as on other islands] so we should be able to get the same service, but on Molokai we get a lot slower service,” said Oceanic customer Ronald Bouman at the meeting.
“The only thing the Molokai WAVE service has in common with the RoadRunner service on other islands is monthly cost,” said Kawela resident Douglas Beijer. While Molokai customers pay the same $49.95 as Oahu residents, they get half the speed provided to RoadRunner customers: 5 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed versus 10 Mbps, according to Beijer.
Oceanic’s CATV services were also scrutinized, with residents complaining about poor sound and picture quality of channels, faulty programming and inadequate customer service.
Resident Moke Kim suggested that competition would be the way to regulate Oceanic’s “monopoly” on CATV and broadband services. Instead of renewing the franchise agreement for 20 years, the term should be shortened, allowing for other cable companies to compete for a long-term contract.
“You cannot tell me where we’re going to be in 10 years, so they should not get a 20-year contract,” said Kim. “In two years, if there is a competing company, we’re going to be stuck with Oceanic for 18 more years.”
Cheryl Corbiell, who teaches Internet courses part-time at UH Maui College, Molokai, echoed this sentiment. “With the rapid advancement of technologies today, what we think of as TV is not going to be the same in 20 years.”
Akaku: a valuable asset for the community
As part of the previous franchise agreement, Oceanic is required by federal law to divert three percent of their revenues to fund public access, government and education channels, which in Maui County, is provided by nonprofit organization Akaku Maui Community Television.
It is Akaku’s mission to “empower the community’s voice through access to media,” according to Dan Emhof, director of Akaku Molokai Media Center. They serve the islands of Molokai, Maui and Lanai via programming on CATV channels 52, 53, 54, 55 and 56.
“With students, reading and writing has become secondary to technology,” said community activist Walter Ritte. “Akaku plays a huge role in teaching our children how to communicate using video, so DCCA needs to support what they are doing.”
“Akaku is one of our family programs,” said Ruth Manu. “They provide nutrition programs, kupuna programs and educational programs that we need to fight for.”
Recently, Akaku’s public access channels have been under attack by Time Warner, according to Emhof. One of Akaku’s educational channels was switched from analog channel 56 to a digital channel –channel 356, which Emhof calls a “digital Siberia.” Viewers would not be able to access the channel unless they obtained a separate digital cable box.
“We cannot be an informed community without access to public television and it cannot continue to be hatcheted,” said customer Artis Swingle.
The DCCA urges community members to submit written feedback by Sept. 14 to firstname.lastname@example.org, by post to P.O. Box 541, Honolulu, HI 96809 or online by the questionnaire and survey found at hawaii.gov/dccafnar/catv/twc-maui-county.