Members of a committee tasked with charting the future of Tacoma’s cable and Internet system could unveil their plan for the system’s success this spring.
The seven-member Click Engagement Committee will spend Friday evenings until then learning about the intricacies of municipal cable systems — and about Click Cable TV’s competition.
Click Cable TV, owned and operated by Tacoma Public Utilities, was created in the late 1990s. At the time, if Tacomans wanted cable TV service, Comcast predecessor TCI was the only choice — and the company was not motivated to provide high-speed Internet to Tacoma.
Now several providers offer both cable and high-speed Internet service here. Last year Wave of Kirkland offered to lease Click. Wave’s offer started a nearly yearlong discussion about the future of Click and whether it should be leased to an outside company or remain under municipal control.
Late last year, the Tacoma City Council chose to examine what it would take to keep Click. TPU leaders have said the city system loses between $5.5 million and $7.5 million per year, although the competition has drawn lower prices and improved service from Comcast, its principal rival.
The City Council and the Tacoma Public Utilities Board have appointed a seven-member Click Engagement Committee. By March or April, the committee is expected to produce a business plan for Click, which has hemorrhaged subscribers since 2009 after seismic shifts in how consumers nationwide view television programs.
FOCUS ON INTERNET
The committee includes a mix of city and utility policy makers, broadband industry experts and someone representing the interests of TPU ratepayers.
The committee members are: Mayor Marilyn Strickland, City Councilman Marty Campbell, TPU board members Karen Larkin and Mark Patterson, Topia Technology founder Janine Terrano and newly elected Tacoma School Board member Andrea Cobb.
A seventh who was initially selected, former Microsoft manager David Hills, backed out before the first meeting. TPU board chairman Bryan Flint said he is looking for a replacement and hopes to have a name by Friday.
Cobb said she joins the committee with an open mind and hopes to provide a thoughtful recommendation for a sustainable business model. She also is thinking about “families that struggle to access critical Internet services,” of which there are many in Tacoma’s high-poverty neighborhoods.
Terrano said she believes it’s important to evaluate Click’s equipment and upgrade needs — and what they will cost — to help the system maintain a competitive market advantage.
Tacoma-based Topia Technology did more than $2 million in business with various branches of the military and other government agencies, according to purchasing records and the company’s website. Terrano said two years ago Topia pivoted to the commercial sector to sell its military-grade security platform called Secrata.
Some Click supporters have criticized Tacoma Public Utilities for not sharing Click’s true financial position. Bosses at TPU have said it’s difficult to tell because of the way funds were set up when Click was created. Click is essentially a department of Tacoma Power, which uses some of Click’s wires to send information between pieces of electric-service equipment.
Strickland said that rather than rehashing old arguments, she wants the committee to focus on “how can we make this the best possible system and what would be the plan to compete with the private (Internet Service Providers) and how do we provide a product that people actually want to buy.”
Strickland said market share — the percentage of households that subscribe to Click — isn’t what it could be. One possible reason: Many multifamily buildings have agreements with other companies to keep Click out.
Unlike many prior meetings about Click’s future, the committee’s discussions are behind closed doors. TPU Director Bill Gaines said the meetings, which will contain fewer than a quorum of City Council or TPU board members, are not required to be open to the public.
Flint said meetings between TPU staff are often not public, and that the Click Engagement Committee’s work will be publicly vetted more than other staff initiatives.
“I’m a big advocate for public meetings, and I’m sure people say that to you all the time when they are about to close the door on you,” Flint said. The committee members, he added, “are really an extension of the staff.”
Strickland said private businesses are not required to have public meetings, and hosting public meetings about Click could tip Tacoma’s hand and hamstring Click’s chances at future success.
City staff will not present confidential information to committee members during the closed sessions. Instead the utility has retained a law firm, which will read confidential memos and provide legal advice to the group. One key question is whether the city can legally run its own Internet utility instead of selling wholesale access to several private ISPs, such as Rainier Connect and Advanced Stream.
A consultant has said Tacoma running the Internet side of the business itself, instead of sharing profits with the ISPs, is key to future fiscal success.
The group’s primary charges are to hire a consultant and craft a strategy on how Click should compete with the current ISPs and more.
But just because the group is looking for ways to save Click doesn’t mean the plan will succeed. The group’s work also includes deciding when to call it quits. Though leasing or selling Click is not the driver for these meetings, Strickland said, any good business plan comes with an exit strategy.
The TPU board and City Council could vote on a business plan by the end of April.