The American Cable Association held its 14th annual meeting in Washington, DC, this week and, while there was some carping about the way the government sees small cable operators – especially as it lumps them in with the industry’s bigger players – the overall focus was upbeat.

"They’re upbeat because they have launched advanced services with voice, video and data, and they’re making great strides in their communities," said Matt Polka, president-CEO of the ACA.

For an ACA member, customer service means dealing with the family that lives next door. Since there aren’t that many – how can there be when subs are frequently divided by miles, not yards? – every subscriber is important. When neighbors started drifting away to the multichannel digital packages offered by satellite, the ACA membership had to respond with more than a smile and a handshake.

"What our members have done over the past couple years to rev up their level of competition to be more formidable with satellite is (deliver) voice, video and data," Polka said. "There are certainly costs to implement that and managing that bandwidth effectively." 550 to 860 The ACA members have managed to gradually jack up bandwidth from 550 MHz to 860 MHz to effectively deliver the triple play, and "with the price of technology coming down, it has become more readily affordable for smaller companies as well," he said.

While there is government funding available – particularly through the Rural Utilities Services administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – ACA members are less likely to dip into that pool of money than their rural local exchange carrier (RLEC) counterparts.

"Our group is very independent, entrepreneurial," Polka said. "They got into this business with either debt financing, personal financing, equity financing … they’ve pretty much done it on their own, and as a result of that, they have not sought help or assistance from the government," he said.

They also haven’t seen an onslaught of competition from the RLECs who have. Forget cable vs. telco "It’s so sparsely populated in many rural areas you don’t see a whole lot of cable vs. telco video competition because there aren’t that many subscribers per mile," he said.

With subscribers spread so thin, some ACA members have at least sneaked a peak at what’s happening with wireless alternatives like WiMAX for last-mile areas where "it gets so sparsely populated that extending cable would not be economical," said Polka. "That’s something that will be on a greater scale as time goes on, but right now it’s in its infancy."

Like everything with the smaller cable operators, it’s on a smaller scale, and it’s a little behind the big boys. That’s what the organization hoped to hammer home by again meeting in Washington: Not all cable operators are created equal.

"Cable is not cable. There’s large urban, and then there’s smaller rural, and if anybody is going to be providing these advanced services that the FCC and Congress want in the rural marketplace, it’s going to be us," said Polka. "To regulate our companies like a Comcast or Time Warner doesn’t make sense."

That, though, is almost a footnote for an industry group that has lots of reasons to be upbeat, he concluded.

"By launching voice, video and data (and) by being progressive in our communities, we’re getting subscribers back from the dish, and that’s a good sign," he said. "We come in a little bit behind what the larger companies have done because with their scale they can do it first, but we make it happen." – Jim Barthold

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