Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Let's face it.

Vermillion's present cable television system, operated by Zylstra Communications, leaves a lot to be desired.

One of its most ironic tendencies of late is its failure, at times, to even be able to pick up the broadcasts of South Dakota Public Television which originate right here in Vermillion. Other South Dakota stations, like KDLT, KSFY and KELO, also have difficulty being received on Vermillion televisions hooked to cable.

Granted, Vermillion certainly isn't the largest city in South Dakota. But it's also home to the state's second largest university. You would think that a cable TV operator would want to better tap into that market.

But Zylstra Communications hasn't done much recently to enhance its cable TV package. Last year, it announced that great improvements were on the way here � improvements it said would be completed last fall.

All Vermillion citizens need to do is turn on their televisions to know that those improvements haven't been completed.

And it could take some time before they are. Zylstra Communications recently announced its intent to sell its cable TV company to Mediacom, LLC, a firm which operates cable TV systems in several states.

One can only assume that in this case, bigger is better, but the future of Vermillion's cable TV remains a mystery for the sale hasn't been finalized yet and Zylstra's franchise hasn't been transferred to Mediacom.

The Vermillion City Council is currently mired in discussion about whether, or more specifically, how to allow a second company to offer cable television services in Vermillion.

Dakota Telecommunications Group (DTG) based in Irene wants to do business here. We feel the city of Vermillion should let it.

Vermillion offered a franchise to DTG earlier this year, but it contains at least five sections that are so unattractive that it's driven DTG away, for now.

The city should concentrate on ironing out these differences. We believe Vermillion would be well-served by DTG, which plans to offer many more selections for about the same cost to consumers. DTG also seems well suited to put Vermillion on the cutting edge by offering Internet and other modern telecommunications services.

One would think that Zylstra Communications would be the party objecting to DTG's presence in Vermillion. Ironically, however, it appears that the city itself is blocking the road to cable TV progress here.

Formulating and implementing cable television franchises are complicated processes, we know. We know that city leaders have put a lot of time and effort into writing a new franchise that it hopes will be fair to all cable TV systems that are interested in doing business here.

One has to wonder, however, if the city hasn't written a franchise that's too restrictive. DTG has spelled out its reasons for rejecting the franchise (see the front page of the Plain Talk). One of the major bones of contention appears to be the collection of franchise fees.

It's a certainty that the city of Vermillion would collect franchise fees from a percentage of the gross revenues collected by DTG if it operated a cable television system in Vermillion � money in the bank, so to speak.

But the city claims it's also entitled to collect franchise fees on any Internet services DTG may offer in Vermillion through its cable system.

There's never been any mention at a city council meeting of the amount of extra money that could land in city coffers should DTG cave in and agree to pay the fees on Internet services.

William Heaston, DTG's legal counsel, told the Plain Talk Wednesday that it likely wouldn't be a great deal of money.

Before cities grant cable franchises, they must consider three factors: the company's financial ability, managerial ability, and technological ability. DTG recently merged with McLeodUSA, which had total revenues in 1998 of more than $604 million, and had total assets of more than $2 billion.

The city council should decide what's of more value � the extra franchise fees, or allowing DTG to set up shop here with a state-of-the-art cable TV and telecommunications system.

The answer seems obvious. The city should hammer out a franchise that will allow DTG to come here. Competition forces businesses to respond to customers, which can only benefit Vermillion's television viewers.

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