CenturyLink wants to challenge Comcast's hold on Twin Cities

Duane Ring
Duane Ring, CenturyLink Midwest regional president, makes his pitch to the Minneapolis City Council last month.
Curtis Gilbert | MPR News

For the first time, some Twin Cities residents may soon have a choice of cable TV providers. CenturyLink is challenging Comcast's long-standing lock on the local market.

But not all residents would benefit from the increased competition, which makes the company's pitch to local leaders a tough sell.

Before it can sell cable TV in the metro area, CenturyLink needs the blessing of the cities where it wants to operate.

CenturyLink contends it cannot comply with a state law that requires cable companies to build out their networks to every household in each city they serve. The company argues the law stifles competition and has been invalidated by the Federal Communications Commission.

"Until now, the cable company has had a monopoly on television service in Minneapolis," CenturyLink Midwest Regional President Duane Ring said in his pitch to the Minneapolis City Council last month. "CenturyLink is here prepared to bring a choice and bring the benefits of competition to Minneapolis.

Comcast officials say all competitors should play by the same rules — and be forced to eventually serve the whole city.

"The City Council should not be put in a position of having to pick winners and losers when it comes to making competitive choices available for residents," Comcast spokeswoman Mary Beth Schubert said.

Pete Rhodes
Pete Rhodes is the CEO of BMA, a local cable channel aimed at an African-American audience.
Curtis Gilbert | MPR News

Pete Rhodes, who runs the BMA, a cable channel aimed at African-American viewers, agrees. He worries that CenturyLink would favor wealthier areas that statistically have fewer black residents.

"It may be a situation where the new company may be coming in and looking for individuals that can afford a higher package," he said.

CenturyLink spokesman Blois Olson said the company will not discriminate.

"We are very confident in Minneapolis that the service will be available to a broad range of diverse constituencies across the city — socio-economic, racial and otherwise," Olson said.

But CenturyLink officials have refused to say exactly where the company will offer that service, concerned that the information could fall into the hands of a competitor.

City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said without that information she likely will vote to deny the company's application.

"And I do not see, and maybe you can tell me if I'm wrong, any way that we would be able to adequately at the city of Minneapolis enforce any provision to prevent economic redlining or cherry picking unless we knew that information," Glidden said last week.

The issue is not unique to the Twin Cities. In Seattle, the City Council voted this week to eliminate a variety of cable TV regulations. Companies will no longer be required to offer services to all residents in a given area. But they will have to serve a significant number of low-income residents.

Michael Mattmiller, Seattle's chief technology officer, said cable providers will have to prove they're complying.

"We understand that competitors need to be competitive if they're going to come into the market, and there's some sensitivity to those plans," Mattmiller said. "But at the end of the day, we need to understand where any provider is planning to offer services. They must demonstrate to the city how their build is equitable."

Mattmiller said the new regulations are designed to spark competition — and not just for TV service. The same fiber optic cables carry Internet as well.

That's why Andy Thompson hopes CenturyLink succeeds. Thompson, a music producer who works in the basement studio of his south Minneapolis home, was excited to learn that CenturyLink was installing fiber optic cable in his area.

"I mean every day, I am downloading and uploading gigabytes of information," said Thompson who works with Belle and Sebastian, Taylor Swift, Jeremy Messersmith and other artists.

The bands send him unfinished tracks over the Internet, and he puts on some of the finishing touches.

Thompson is concerned that if CenturyLink can't sell cable TV, it won't be able to offer higher speed Internet as broadly. He understands the concerns about fairness, but he hopes the City Council will decide some competition is better than none.

"I just need access to that pipe so instead of downloading a session and going to make a cup of coffee, I can just download the session and start working," he said.

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