While The Independent Show, which begins July 29 in Monterey, Calif., will celebrate the success of independent operators, American Cable Association chief Matt Polka, in our Q&A, says D.C. remains hostile to his members on retrans, RUS loans and the set-top box integration ban. An edited transcript follows.
Last August you called the regulatory environment in D.C. "hostile." Has it improved?
ACA has made significant strides to raise policy makers’ awareness of the business concerns of independent operators and how smaller, rural markets differ from urban ones. Washington routinely cites the critical need for broadband deployment in rural America, and we agree with that. Yet regulatory actions speak louder than words. Unfortunately, the environment has not improved. For instance, the FCC is forcing operators to divert millions of dollars from expansion projects to comply with a set-top box integration ban that yields no consumer benefit. RUS loans are being given to new entrants in markets already served by existing broadband providers, instead of reserving the funds for unserved markets. And then there’s retransmission consent laws, which force consumers to pay more.
Retrans is still ACA’S top issue?
Without question. Given the severe financial impact on our members and, more importantly, on our customers, retransmission consent continues to be a major issue. DTV, set-tops, RUS, net neutrality, VoIP regulation are some of the other issues. But retrans is by far the biggest. Washington needs to see that retransmission consent raises prices and robs consumers of competition. We have an open attitude toward programmers. We’re not trying to be a walled garden.
Using your crystal ball, what themes will dominate the panels during the show?
Rolling out the triple play, wireless, set-top boxes and downloadable security, OCAP, preparing for the DTV transition, looking ahead to the next retrans round in 2008 and finding better, more effective and efficient means to provide advanced services in rural markets.
What will be the chatter du jour in the hallways?
I think there will be a great sense of optimism, because voice, video and data are changing the ways our members do business, it’s improving their operations. But there will be concern, too, with the 2008 retrans round and the 2009 DTV transition just around the corner. In sum, plan for the best, and be prepared to handle the worst.
By definition your member companies are relatively small. Do they have the resources to provide an experience equal to DBS and the telcos? If not, do they have the budgets to provide good customer service?
I continue to be impressed at how independent operators use ingenuity and pure determination to deliver advanced services to rural and smaller markets while competing against the deep-pocketed DBS and telcos. While their smaller size creates unique challenges, it also provides a few advantages. Independent operators are nimble enough to quickly seize new opportunities, as evidenced by news reports of companies such as Armstrong, Sunflower Broadband or BendBroadband and many others being among the first operators to deploy new services. Independent operators are also as local as it gets. As a result they can leverage long-lasting relationships in the communities they serve to help finance network upgrades and expansions. In addition, they have homegrown talent throughout their operations, and as a result, their employees take pride in delivering a more personalized level of customer service.
What do you want your members to take away from the show?
A sense of urgency to get actively involved with ACA in the policy-making process. Proven strategies and innovative ideas that they can implement in their operations. Motivation to continue to fight the good fight for their customers.
Three points: One, working in Washington and with policy makers is not easy. It can be very frustrating. It would be easier to just do something else. But we ignore Washington at our peril. That’s one thing I always want our members to understand. Two: I want our members to embrace every day that they truly can make a difference to change the way things are in Washington. It’s already happening as we see hundreds of our members making grassroots a part of their daily business activities. Three: Never give up. Independent cable and its customers are worth too much.
Besides attending The Independent Show, what should we do or see in Monterey?
Cannery Row, previously a mecca for sardine canning, is now home to shops, world-class restaurants, a fantastic aquarium and great views of the sea.
Take a short road trip and experience 17-Mile Drive, a scenic trek that takes you through the Del Monte Forest and alongside the fairways of such famous golf courses as The Links at Spanish Bay, Spyglass Hill and the world-renowned Pebble Beach Golf Links. In addition to the course views, you’re likely to spot lots of wildlife on land and in the sea.
Tour Monterey wine country, which encompasses seven unique grape-growing appellations and more than two dozen wineries. If you don’t have time to venture out of Monterey, you can sample local varietals at the Taste of Monterey visitors’ center on Cannery Row.
Not that I’ll get any chance to see this. I’ll be working!