Process to determine future of Click inches forward

Outspoken public support for Click Cable TV network swelled in 2015 when talks of leasing out the municipal network bubbled up and later died. Now Tacoma City Council and Tacoma Public Utility Board will issue a call for proposals about how best to use the system. File photo / Steve Dunkelberger

Tacoma City Council received an update on the process that will, at least hopefully, determine the future of the municipal Click Cable TV and broadband system during the Tuesday study session.

The working timeline is to have a draft agreement between the city and consultant CTC Technology & Energy by late March to then issue a Request For Information in April. That call for ideas will take about a month and provide the city with information and ideas gathered from telecommunications companies, nonprofits and other government agencies on how partnerships with them would work and how any possible agreement would fulfill the 12 goals the city and Tacoma Public Utilities have for Click’s future, namely the promotion of Internet service through accessibility and affordability, net neutrality and stewardship of a public asset.

That first RFI step is basically a formal way of brainstorming ideas from interested parties. Requests for Proposals – more formal and detailed than general concepts – could then be developed from the possible partnership ideas outlined in that more general call for ideas. Those would then be considered by the TPU board and the City Council for further action.

Running on a parallel track to this process is one being handled inhouse by TPU to determine costs, possible pitfalls and benefits of spinning off Click to its own public utility. There is also the eventual selection of a new TPU chief executive officer process that is playing out. And then there is the lawsuit over the legality of Click’s finances, which have been calculated at an operating loss of about $6 million a year that have been covered by TPU’s general operations. The lawsuit claims that accounting shuffle constitutes a gift of ratepayer money to a non-utility function and wants Click to pay back $21 million, the ledger value of the fiber optic network. A partial summary judgement hearing is set for March 2. A trial is set for late June.

The future of Click has been an issue of starts and stops for years. TPU formed Click 21 years ago as a way to fully use the $200 million fiber optic cable system that the utility said it needed at the time to install “smart meters” to provide better and more efficient electrical service. Changes in technology largely made those meters less attractive, so the plan has never been completed and is under review by a consultant. Since the broadband capacity wasn’t needed for those meters, TPU recalculated the cost-sharing percentages between the utility and Click Cable, prompting ongoing losses in accounting ledgers.

The cable television industry isn’t without its own set of changes. The rise of “cord cutters,” who opt out of cable television packages and just use streaming services, have also altered Click’s operations, at least in the minds of policy makers and analysts.

All those changes led to two competing bids by private companies to lease Click in 2015. Those efforts then stalled under calls for a broader discussion of the use and potential future of the municipal network as a provider of “all in” services that would make Click a competitor to private companies that provide telephone, Internet and cable television services. A consultant determined that expanding the network to bundle those services would be financially risky, so recommended a general call for ideas.

Click watchers will have to stay tuned as details develop.

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