TPU hosts ‘stakeholder’ meetings regarding partnership options

Tacoma Public Utilities is holding a series of stakeholder meetings that are being facilitated by the Center for Dialog and Resolution through mid-November as the municipal utility ponders options about public-private partnerships involving its Click Network. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

Tacoma Public Utilities is meeting with individual groups of stakeholders through the middle of next month to discuss the 12 policy goals it and the City Council drafted as anchor points on the future of Click Network as they seek public-private partnership options to operate the fiber-optic network.

The seven separate meetings with specific groups started Wednesday with a one-hour discussion for Click employees. Future meetings include subscribers of Click Cable Services on Oct. 29, educational, technology and community partners on Nov. 5, Internet Service Providers and a public meeting on Nov. 19.

The idea behind the meetings is to “allow stakeholders the opportunity to comment on the 12 policy goals and identify their future needs in regard to evolving our communication network…,” the announcement stated. The meetings will be facilitated by staffers from the Center for Dialog and Resolution, which was contracted to develop group-specific approaches and then collate the feedback from those meetings for the City Council and TPU board.

“The goal is to better hear from the community on the 12 Click! policy goals and understand how they prioritize them,” TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason stated. “The Public Utility Board and City Council will use the information gathered in the stakeholder meetings to inform their review of the potential public private partnership. The board and council members who were part of a committee focused on Click! network expressed a desire to engage citizens with diverse interests and collect data through facilitate discussions. Rather than open-ended feedback, they wanted specific information related to the policy goals to inform their decision.”

The 12 policy goals centered on public ownership of assets; equitable access; low-income affordability; net neutrality; open access; competition; safeguard city and TPU use; financial stability, economic development and educational opportunities; consumer privacy and consumer goodwill.

As the process moves forward, any council and board actions that require resolutions or motions will include public comments, which is standard. These stakeholder meetings are designed to capture information more targeted to what policymakers need right now.

The meetings are the latest step in an exploratory process to potentially create a public-private partnership with one of three companies Rainier Connect, Wave Broadband and Yomura Fiber, to lease out the fiber-optic system rather than to continue to operate its own cable network and rent out the network to private internet providers. A deal could be settled in 2019. The cable arm of the utility has been posting multi-million dollar losses for years that were being absorbed by TPU’s general operation fund and is a matter of a lawsuit that is facing an Appeals Court decision next year after a lower court cited the accounting shuffle as running afoul of state law since internet access is not considered a utility function alongside water, power and heat.

For its part, the utility has presented a balanced budget for Click Network to cover the projected $6 million in paper loses until Click’s future is ultimately decided. Click’s budget calls for a two-tiered rate increases for cable tv subscribers of 9.8 percent in 2019 and an 18 percent jump in 2020 and a $5 a month increase for internet services each year as well but would remain below prices offered in the city by Comcast, according to staff reports.

While he is hopeful that the series of meetings will provide decision makers with full picture of the complex issues surrounding the changing nature of cable television and internet services as the public-private partnership idea moves forward, Advanced Stream CEO Mitchell Shook said that couching the series of meetings through a mediator seemed a bit premature.

“I know that they voted to look at it, but they never voted to actually do it,” he said. “It really seems like the fix is in.”

He claims that TPU is shifting too much of the Click’s operating cost onto the network and devaluing its role in the marketplace by keeping cable and internet prices lower than if there were fewer competitors.

“This could be a great opportunity to seek input for solutions and ways to improve Click! under the current model,” Shook stated in a message on social media. “Instead, this CDR process starts with the false premise that the ‘public private partnership’ or ‘partnership’ is a forgone conclusion. …Click! is not a broken business model or failed policy endeavor, and this is not the message we want to be sending to our customers, stakeholders and the general public. …It’s premature to announce Click! Network’s demise.”

Members of the general public will have a chance to hear about the public-private partnership option and voice their thoughts at a meeting from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 19 tentatively set at the STAR Center. The future will ultimately face approval by the TPU board and the City Council.

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