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Mediacom spread misinformation on Lake County broadband project

The future of Lake County should not depend on the business plans of national cable companies. Access to high-speed Internet for business, education and health care is essential for the growth of rural communities. Mediacom and the Minnesota Cabl...

The future of Lake County should not depend on the business plans of national cable companies. Access to high-speed Internet for business, education and health care is essential for the growth of rural communities. Mediacom and the Minnesota Cable Association seem to believe that if you live in Lake County and Northeastern St. Louis County, and you want broadband access, you should move into town -- where their profit margins are better.

Stimulus money was intended to encourage companies like Mediacom to invest in places like most of Lake County that are not attractive on a normal profit/loss statement. But no current provider of Internet services in Lake County applied for money. So Lake County applied.

As the county attorney at the time, I was not excited about the possibility of taking on the

$56 million loan. I told the County Board the loan was like any other loan. If it was not paid back, the lender, the Rural Utility Service, or RUS, may take any of the standard actions to collect. But the board saw the importance of high-speed access for all citizens and made a decision to take on the liability. Then commissioners made a tougher decision, some going against campaign promises, to vote to support the project with county reserves when the cost and terms of the bond for start-up costs jeopardized the project.

It is difficult for any municipality to compete with current Internet providers. These national and regional companies have more money and access to the plans, meetings and correspondence of municipal networks like Lake Connections. These communication companies can drive prices down, invest in technology upgrades and improve customer service.

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Or they could try to derail projects with false accusations, confusion and litigation.

Minnesota Cable Communications Association Executive Director Michael Martin, in a June 5 commentary in the News Tribune ("Taxpayers are on a $56 million hook for the Lake County fiber project"), cited "allegations that a high-ranking Rural Utilities Service official told unidentified Lake County representatives that the federal government would not seek repayment of the loan in the event of a default of the system." These "allegations" started with Mediacom. In February 2011 Mediacom filed a complaint in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector general. The USDA reported to a congressional hearing that the inspector general investigated and found the "allegations" and other complaints of Mediacom unsupported by facts. At that same hearing, the "allegations" also came up in a direct question through the influence of the cable association. The "allegations" were denied by the Rural Utilities Service, as Martin described in his commentary.

Now the same old "allegations" by Mediacom are published locally. Repetition does not improve their validity. I was at the meeting where Mediacom claims the statements were made. They are simply not true. No Lake County representative said a high-ranking Rural Utilities Service official told Lake County the federal government would not seek repayment of the loan.

So why does Mediacom keep "alleging" this? Or why is the cable association so concerned that Lake County conduct a referendum for municipal telephone service, which isn't required by Minnesota law? Mediacom is not a nonprofit taxpayers association concerned with fiscal responsibility. Mediacom is a national, for-profit cable company, protecting a concentrated customer base against a municipality that is improving the quality of life for all its citizens and ensuring the competitiveness of all its local businesses in the world marketplace -- not just those "in town."

In this high-speed world, should Lake County government wait for the day a national cable company may decide to invest in Lake County's future? Or should Lake County take on the responsibility and the risk for its

future?

Russ Conrow of the Conrow Law Office of Two Harbors is the former Lake County attorney.

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