Park and Rec rejects plan to place telcom nodes on park property

The city Park and Recreation Advisory Board has voted to support staff’s decision not to place TDS Metrocom LLC nodes on park property.

The City Commission voted in May to approve a cable system franchise agreement with TDS.

The Madison, Wisc. based company has since begun meetings with city departments for their installation plans and during the June 13 meeting, discussed their plans with the Park and Recreation Advisory Board.

City in talks with telecom company for easements

In August, city staff advised the board that they didn’t think it was a partnership they wanted to enter into, though they won’t be able to prevent TDS from going into other public spaces with their nodes.

According to Deputy City Manager Chuck Anderson, the nodes are too big to fit in the city rights of way, but that staff offered TDS the opportunity to discuss placing the nodes on other city property. He said that the last email from TDS indicated they wanted or would be placing the nodes on private or commercial easements.

The company is planning to provide broadband internet, video and digital voice services in the city and will be a competitor to Spectrum.

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The company has recently constructed new networks in Idaho and Washington and entered franchise agreements with the cities of Billings and Helena for the construction of new networks to provide cable television services there, according to the city staff report.

In June, TDS staff said they’re looking at potential easements on public property, such as city parkland, for the 12 nodes they plan to install throughout the city.

They were also discussing options with Great Falls Public Schools.

On Oct. 17, Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations manager, told The Electric that the district wasn’t interested in installing the notes on district property.

The nodes require 16 foot by 16 foot, or 256 square feet, easements. The node cabinet is about 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep and four feet tall on a precast pad, according to Jared Pahl, of TDS.

Pahl said they work with landowners on the terms of the easement, to include payments and landscaping.

City considering new cable franchise agreement

He said they’re working with the city and other large public landowners to find a few test sites to install the first nodes.

One of the sites under consideration is a corner of Horizon Park, 101 29th Ave. N.W., so Pahl spoke to the city’s park board to provide preliminary information.

TDS entered Montana about two years ago, starting in Billings, and is doing similar projects in Helena, Missoula ad Butte.

He said they also worked with Nampa, Idaho, where they paid $2,800 per site for the easements with one-time payments.

TDS is also setting up a field office in Great Falls and Pahl said they have purchased property in anticipation of the project.

Pahl said they intend to begin work in July and are working with city departments for permitting and easements.

The Federal Communications Act requires cable operators to get a franchise from a local government granting it permission to use the public-right-of-way to provide cable services.

The local government can impose conditions on a cable system provider, it can’t unreasonable refuse to approve additional competitive franchises, according to the city staff report.

City considering new fees for fiber cable installation

The federal law allows local governments to received a franchise fee of up to five percent of gross revenues from the cable services provided in the local government’s jurisdiction, and under past agreements, cable providers have paid $600,000 to the city annually into the general fund.

That amount per company could come down if there’s competition and gross revenues are shared across companies, city staff said during the meeting.

The City of Great Falls used a consultant to help negotiate the proposed franchise agreement with TDS, which is the first new wireline cable operating in the local market since Spectrum’s predecessors started in the 1970s, according to the city staff report.

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The agreement is modeled after the one that is currently in place with the city’s only other cable system franchise holder, Spectrum Pacific West. Commissioners approved that agreement in 2020.

TDS will also provide broadband internet service, which isn’t subject to local government regulation or franchise fees, according to the staff report.

Paul Skubinna, city public works director, said his office is tracking TDS’ progress in other communities and expects it will take the company about two years to install cable lines.

The city has fees for other utilities or fiber in the public right of way that are handled through the development process.

The TDS agreement as proposed, according to the staff report, includes:

  • an initial term of 10 years, which is the same as Spectrum;
  • service area minimum density generally of at least seven residences per quarter-linear strand mile
    of aerial cable;
  • subject to a marginal cost offset, provision of free basic cable service to four city facilities: the Civic Center, Great Falls Police Department, Great Falls Public Library and the new indoor recreation center;
  • franchise fee of five percent of gross revenue, which is the same as Spectrum;
  • provision of educational and government access channel; and
  • access channel capital support for equipment to be used for operation of the access channel by the city.

Deputy City Manager Chuck Anderson said that there will be a separate government access channel through TDS and the agreement requires the company to pay some of those startup costs as Spectrum did for the access channel on their services.

The city was required to notify Spectrum of TDS’ request under the current agreement with Spectrum.