Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Vermillion arguably is being served by a poor quality cable television system.

Internet users in the community must log on through telephone modems rather than the high speed cable services currently being offered in some of the smallest communities in the Vermillion region.

Vermillion telephone users are paying, literally, for the city council's failure to reach a franchise agreement with DTG, now known as DTG/McLeodUSA, by being denied an opportunity to sign up for less expensive phone service.

And we're supposed to be grateful.

In a classic "kill the messenger" diatribe Monday, Alderman Frank Slagle criticized stories that appeared on the front page of the June 23 Plain Talk.

We admit, the stories didn't have too many good things to say about telecommunications in Vermillion.

There's a good reason for that. There's not a whole lot of good things to say about cable television or Internet services here. What's most frustrating, perhaps, is the fact that DTG/McLeod USA could nearly be ready to offer one of the most state-of-the-art telecommunications systems here.

We could be on the verge of getting cable television with a wide channel selection and crystal clear reception.

We could be on the verge of being able to access the Internet through high speed cable modems that allow computer users to download data in a fraction of the time of the only method offered in Vermillion.

Perhaps most important to the Vermillion community is the very competitively priced phone service that could have been offered here had the city been reasonable in its negotiations with DTG/McLeodUSA.

Our research in the last month leads us to conclude that DTG/McLeodUSA is on the cutting edge of the rapidly changing telecommunications industry. Vermillion's only cable television provider, Mediacom, so far hasn't shown this potential.

Mediacom has been so slow to get up to speed, in fact, that some recent upgrades to Vermillion's cable system came only after Mayor William Radigan told company officials they weren't holding up their end of the franchise agreement with the city, and he expected some action.

A Mediacom official has told us that improvements are on the way. Eventually, we should have better cable television. We also should have high speed cable Internet access here.

But Mediacom isn't in the telephone business. DTG/McLeod USA is. We ask our readers to closely read our story on the front page, pay close attention to the savings being experienced by phone users in Yankton and Elk Point right now, and ask a simple question: Did the city need to be so adamant with DTG about the Internet franchise fee (and covenants, signal input points, institutional networks and other issues) to the point of driving the company away?

Let's explore the Internet franchise fee issue a moment. Slagle said Monday that it was important for the city not to roll over and drop the fee for DTG.

Without the fee, Slagle said, DTG could eventually be using city easements for free. DTG argued that the fee is illegal, and the company stuck to its guns.

How much money would Vermillion have received, had DTG aquiesced and agreed to pay the fee?

Chump change, actually.

For the last year, Midcontinent Communications, Mitchell's telecommunications provider, has voluntarily paid the fee. It's generated about $2,600 annually for that city, made up of about 5,000 more people than Vermillion.

So 1) We're talking about a piddly amount of revenue here if DTG had paid the fee. And 2) Did city leaders really believe the "company" would pay the fee? When businesses are slapped with fees, taxes, etc., what is bound to happen?

They pass those costs on to their customers, naturally. An Internet franchise fee is a really just a fancy term for a new city tax, collected by telecommunication companies to be deposited in city coffers.

DTG eventually told Vermillion it was tired of playing this game. The company picked up its ball, and found new playgrounds in which to frolic, such as Yankton, Centerville, Viborg, Elk Point and North Sioux City.

If the city council only could have eased up on that fee and some other issues, phone customers in Vermillion could eventually be saving hundreds, and even thousands of dollars a year in phone rates. If someone wants to locate a business in southeast South Dakota, a business heavily reliant on phone service, would he or she even look at Vermillion? Elk Point and Yankton sure would appear more tantalizing with those cheaper phone costs.

But wait, we almost forgot. Slagle pointed out Monday that the city, in a spirit of compromise, decided to lift the Internet fee requirement when it came time to renew Mediacom's franchise in September, 1999.

This occurred only after the city drove DTG away with its excessive requirements. It also occured at the 11th hour, just 10 days before the franchise for Mediacom (known then as Zylstra) was due to expire. So DTG had to pay the fee if it wanted to do business here, but that's not a requirement for Mediacom. Draw your own conclusions.

DTG still wants to do business here. It's just too busy right now. But when the timing for DTG to make another pitch for a Vermillion franchise is ripe, we wonder if any headway can be made with members like Slagle sitting on the city council.

Listening to him Monday, one could easily imagine the whole process spinning to halt once again if he is involved.

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