While the future of Click Network, the city’s municipally owned cable television and fiber optic network, works its way through the review process by Tacoma Public Utility Commission and the City Council, one of the Internet Service Providers that would be affected by any changes has added a wrinkle to the talks.
Advanced Stream provides phone internet services directly to customers using the city’s fiber optic network that Tacoma Public Utilities operates alongside its Click Cable TV service. Advanced Stream’s owner Mitchell Shook is championing a petition on Change.org that asks the city to prohibit communications companies from offering financial bonuses, known as “door fees” to apartment complex owners in exchange for only offering their cable, internet and phone services in the buildings. State and federal law already forbid exclusive access agreements between communications companies, but nothing prohibits property owners from signing such agreements with cable providers because the property owners own the communication cables used in the buildings.
It’s a situation much like restaurant owners getting discounts on their soda costs if they only offer Pepsi or Coke products rather than providing both options to customers. It’s a common practice in apartments, apparently, particularly when they just open or otherwise change hands, which is happening a bit more often these days as Tacoma undergoes an apartment and condo boom. It’s also coming at a time when the city’s Click Network and the third-party providers that operate on it face stiff challenges to gain customers so the municipal system covers its expenses.
“We support a ‘Choice of Communications Services Providers in Multiple Occupancy Buildings’ ordinance that would ban kickbacks for landlords and property owners and compel providers to actually compete for their customers’ business,” the petition stated. “The ordinance would be great for residents and for business — leveling the playing field for small and new broadband providers to have a fighting chance in the market and creating the incentive for all providers to offer lower-priced and faster internet.”
“The ordinance would be great for residents and for business — leveling the playing field for small and new broadband providers to have a fighting chance in the market and creating the incentive for all providers to offer lower-priced and faster internet.”
The petition popped up earlier this month after Shook noticed a collection of Advanced Stream customers at the 230-unit Vintage at Tacoma apartments were calling about phone and internet problems that were caused by crews switching them to Comcast services.
“We know what monopoly does,” Shook said. “It creates higher prices and inferior service. This has never happened before, where they come in and kick us out.”
The Vintage apartment claims that isn’t what happened at all and that it has no exclusivity agreement with Comcast.
“We asked Click/Advanced to upgrade their internet speeds to fiber to the unit vs. using an outdated coaxial line for internet that is used mainly for cable TV,” said Vintage’s technology consultant John Russo. “The line Click/Advanced was using belongs to the owner of the property, and we granted Comcast use of this line … Comcast invested brand new infrastructure/wiring to every building at their expense for state-of-the-art fast speed internet and phone. We asked Click/Advanced to do the same, and they rejected and decided to leave the property. This was their decision, not ours, as the residents can choose Comcast or Centurylink for internet or phone currently, and they have a choice. We welcome them to stay, but only with upgraded wiring and technology like Comcast is providing. It’s only reasonable to request a company to upgrade and invest if they want to continue to make profits on this site. We would even grant them a 10-year term to payback their investment.”
Shook calls that response a smoke screen.
“There is no upgrading going on,” he said. “There is wiring already in the wall. It’s about the money. It’s about the door fees.”
Click, for its part, isn’t allowed to off such “door fees” or other incentives to make buildings “Click only” the way private companies can. That would simply be illegal under state and city rules governing gifts of public funds.
“We can’t do that at all,” TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason said.