In Maine, New MSO Same as the Old MSO

The cable business in Houlton, Maine, has been marked in the last three years by acrimony and lawsuits, which included a court decision dismissing a challenge to the town council's ouster of the incumbent operator in favor of an overbuilder.

That period may have ended Nov. 25 when the town council voted unanimously on a new 10-year cable franchise that will bring consumers 100 channels of digital and analog programming — offered in three tiers — and up to 40 music channels.

The wrinkle: the new pact is with the old operator.

The deal is with Polaris Cable Services, the new name of former provider Houlton Cable TV, owned by Presque Isle-based NEPSK Inc.

NEPSK, which also operates broadcaster WAGM-TV in Presque Isle, changed the cable operator's name during the fight with Houlton because the system serves customers outside that community, who, fearing a shut down of Houlton Cable, were fleeing the cable system for direct-broadcast satellite service, according to NEPSK president Gordon Wark.

The town tried to oust Houlton because council members wanted a system upgrade and high-speed data delivery — an investment NEPSK felt was not feasible. The town system only serves about 1,600 customers.

Because of Houlton Cable's resistance to upgrade, the town issued a request for proposals and selected another small MSO, Pine Tree Cablevision of Pennsylvania, to build an advanced system. Meanwhile, NEPSK filed suit against Houlton for refusing to renew its franchise without giving legitimate reasons. The operator lost both in state court and before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, Mass.

But even as the parties battled, NEPSK negotiated a deal with a local ISP to deliver high-speed data.

When the overbuilder missed to municipal deadlines to provide building plan specifics, the city went back to its long-time provider and completed the contract.