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Click owes the ratepayers; give it a shot at repaying

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Jan. 17, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
January 17, 2012 5:54 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

From the start, back in the 1990s, Tacoma’s Click Network was a weird hybrid of a venture – a public utility selling cable television, a commercial commodity.

The hybrid now looks to get bigger as the leaders of Tacoma Public Utilities move to turn the faltering Click into an Internet service provider and a telephone company.

This deeper plunge into the world of private commerce gives us jitters, but it’s like running alongside a moving train: You’ve got to be all in or all out.

Long term, the best strategy might be getting all in, then getting all out. In other words, beef up Click to the point that it looks healthier to investors – then sell it to one of them, moving the enterprise to where it arguably belongs: in the private sector.

Short term, there’s no choice but to keep Click strong enough that the big public investment that built it – tens of millions of dollars – doesn’t get kissed off.

As things stand, the cable network isn’t paying off the ratepayer money spent creating the fiber-optic system that carries its programming. Even if Click could hold its own against its Goliath of a competitor, Comcast, it can’t return much of the ratepayers’ investment without shifting to a more successful business model.

That’s reason enough to expand Click’s offerings of retail data services, despite the legitimate concerns about any government entity competing with private ISPs and other telecommunication services. The network owes a lot of money; give it a chance to repay.

Before trashing Click, it’s worth reviewing how and why it came into existence. The network was created because there appeared to be no other way to get Tacoma and some of its neighboring communities onto what was then called the information superhighway.

TCI, which held the franchise for cable TV in Tacoma, offered a painfully limited selection of programming on obsolete copper wires. No other company showed much interest in giving the city a modern telecommunications infrastructure.

Click, launched in 1998, was a game-changer. It helped finance TPU’s installation of a fiber-optic system that gave homes, schools, businesses and libraries access to high-speed Internet. The universality of the connection was important. For the first time, even the area’s poorest citizens could tap into the Internet’s incomprehensible wealth of information.

In the bargain, Click kept the competition from exercising monopoly power to gouge consumers. The proof is in the prices: Where Click is, the cost of cable is lower. Where Click isn’t, the cost of cable is higher.

Maybe Click doesn’t have a long-term future with TPU. But it’s wise to preserve its viability and keep the options open. Click may not have been a spectacular bet for TPU’s ratepayers, but there is something worse than a borrower in arrears: a borrower gone bust.

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