Princeton ties RCN’s new franchise to a system rebuild

Company says it is committed to making a $5.5 million upgrade.

By: David Campbell
   Cable provider RCN’s franchise renewal will depend on a rebuild of the existing cable system, Princeton officials said Monday night.
   "If there isn’t a rebuild, there isn’t a franchise," Princeton Borough Mayor Marvin Reed said at a special public hearing to review RCN’s refranchise application, held jointly by the Princeton Borough Council and the Princeton Township Committee.
   Thomas Steel, an RCN vice president and counsel, said the company is committed to rebuilding the cable system, which will take no more than 18 months to complete at a cost of around $5.5 million, and promised a greatly expanded cable service lineup as a result.
   Mr. Steel sought to quell concerns by Princeton officials about RCN’s recent financial troubles, noting the company has cash flow to rebuild older systems, like Princeton’s, until at least 2006.
   "I’m standing here sworn in before you telling you we have the money on hand for the rebuild," the RCN official said. "The commitment is here, the money is in place."
   Mr. Steel said Princeton cable rates would be frozen during the rebuild, and Ralph Canina, general manager for RCN Central New Jersey, said the company is taking steps to improve customer service.
   But despite RCN’s assurances, Princeton officials expressed concern over the cable provider’s past failure to live up to its promises of a rebuilt cable system and enhanced services.
   "Why should we believe you now?" asked Township Committeeman Leonard Godfrey, who is the governing body’s liaison to the Joint Princeton Cable TV Committee.
   According to Steve Goodell, special counsel to the committee, Princeton must jointly render a decision to accept or deny refranchisement no later than June 13. The cable provider, whose eight-year franchise expires in October, filed its renewal application Jan. 14.
   The cable TV committee issued a report Oct. 19 blasting RCN for substandard service and overcharging, and ordered the cable provider to rebuild its aging system by October 2002.
   In December, the cable TV committee asked the state Board of Public Utilities to require immediate action, contending RCN made prior public commitments to rebuild but has not followed through.
   Last month, the Borough Council and the Township Committee called on the cable provider to submit documentation showing it can competently provide the services it promises, and RCN responded with a commitment to put its promises in writing.
   On Monday night, cable TV committee Chairman Bernie Miller outlined several conditions for refranchisement.
   In addition to tying the term of the new franchise to the completion of the rebuild, Mr. Miller advised that RCN correct deficiencies under the current franchise and bring rates for basic service in line with those charged in nearby communities.
   Mr. Miller also said RCN must respond better to the programming desires of the Princeton community, and he recommended financial penalties to hold the cable provider to its promises under any refranchise agreement.
   The cable TV chairman said the issues of rebuild and refranchisement go beyond basic cable TV service, citing an existing cable Internet service in Princeton that he said was "not satisfactory," and the importance of the municipal Institutional Network and public, educational and government channels.
   Mr. Miller estimated that about 10 percent of the rebuild has been complete. He said the cable company has made improvements in responding to community needs, as in its recent restoration of Chicago-based station WGN to its cable lineup after residents complained, but said, "I would suggest we have a way to go yet."
   In the event Princeton denies the application, the company may appeal to the BPU, the franchising authority that has final say on approval and programming content.
   The public hearing Monday night adjourned for closed-session negotiations with RCN to be held in the next four weeks, after which the public session will resume for a vote on refranchisement by the two governing bodies.
   RCN’s cable franchise in Montgomery Township is also currently under review.