The future of Tacoma’s Click cable network is in question. A passionate audience filled the lower tier of seats at Stadium High School’s theater Thursday night to hear a proposal to lease the network and voice their thoughts.
City leaders are mulling a 40-year lease to Wave, a growing company based in Kirkland with more than 430,000 customers in three states. In exchange, Wave would pay Tacoma $2 million per year, and make $1.5 million in annual upgrades to the network’s infrastructure. Click bosses say the value of the 40-year deal is worth $380 million in today’s dollars.
Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Tacoma Public Utilities board member Mark Patterson gave a brief overview of the history of Click, while Click general manager Tenzin Gyaltsen talked about Click’s finances and the specifics of Wave’s proposal.
Right now, TPU bosses say, Tacoma Power’s customers subsidize the cost of the Click network to the tune of around $9 million per year.
Thursday’s public meeting was meant to hear what residents thought of a possible Wave deal. TPU planned to ask questions of the audience with “instant polling” using card-sized devices, called clickers in education circles.
But the restless crowd was in no mood for order.
As the poll was about to begin, several people shouted from the crowd that they wanted to speak before the poll was conducted.
“I refuse to use these things,” one man yelled about the polling devices.
“You are asking us to do 40 years, you can’t give us 10 minutes?” another man shouted.
Strickland tried to calm the crowd, and TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason started on the first of nine questions.
Someone threw a clicker onto the stage. It clattered across the floor and slid behind a curtain.
Strickland urged the crowd to order: “In Tacoma, we treat each other with respect and dignity.”
The crowd grumbled but settled down.
Nine questions followed to gauge the audience’s opinions.
“Which of these products are most important to you?” one question stated.
Internet (44 percent)
Cable and Internet (46 percent)
Cable TV only (7 percent)
Not sure (4 percent)
“I believe a private company can deliver superior video content, Internet speeds and new technology,” asked another. 42 percent strongly disagreed.
“How do you feel about a private company offering cable Internet and phone service on a publicly owned network?” 62 percent thought it would be a bad idea.
City officials left more than an hour for questions and answers from the crowd.
Vicki Harris, a retired Click employee, said the utility turned away “hundreds of people a week” because even though they were in the Tacoma Power service area, Click infrastructure did not reach them.
“We are not serving all of our customers,” Harris said.
Several asked why Tacoma didn’t persuade Google fiber to move in. Google fiber operates in several cities, and offers Internet download speeds of up to one gigabit per second.
Mayor Strickland said, “Don’t buy into the hype that Google is the answer to everything. I’ve been knocking on their door since 2010 and they won’t even come to Seattle.”
Most stood up for Click and said the city should not lease it to anyone.
Joey Bushnell, a Northeast Tacoma resident, said he does not subscribe to cable TV. He gets all of his news and television from the Internet.
“Fiber is the future,” he said. “I can’t even believe that this kind of merger is even being thought of in my own city. Absolutely preposterous. And having a 40-year lease. That’s two generations of people stuck under this corporation’s foot.”
Metessa Green, a homeowner in Northeast Tacoma, said she doesn’t want to see Click leased to Wave. But other TPU customers who don’t use Click should not have to pay for those who do.
“I really do believe Click should become its own entity and compete with the other Internet service providers,” Green said, echoing 58 percent of those who answered a similar poll question earlier in the evening.
One man, who did not identify himself at the microphone, acknowledged that most people in the room wouldn’t agree with him.
“Click is a private business. Comcast is a private business,” the man said. “There are many things the government does well, but running business is not in the DNA of government.”
Leslie Young, a 14-year resident of Tacoma, said Tacoma is “cooler than Seattle” in part because it has its own fiber network.
“People were yelling at the beginning,” Young said of the meeting. “Who knew people were so passionate about the Internet? It’s an asset. We need to keep it.”
The next meeting will be held at 7 p.m., Thursday April 23 at the Tacoma Public Utilities auditorium, 3628 S. 35th St., Tacoma.