Rumors of Small Cables Demise Are Premature

As president of the American Cable Association, I have the priv-ilege and honor of serving independent cable businesses and the owners and operators of smaller systems every day. Our many members are the primary link to advanced telecommunications services in smaller markets and rural America. Without them there truly would be a "digital divide," but thanks to them, there isn't.

Independent cable businesses are on the cutting edge of advanced telecommunications services, and are providing these products to their customers. Many of these businesses have lots of subscribers in many smaller systems. But others have far fewer.

In fact, while our membership currently serves about 3 million subscribers and growing nationwide, about half of our members have 1,000 or fewer total subscribers.

Neither size nor location has stopped these independent companies from closing the so-called "digital divide." That's a fact.

However, one would be surprised at the number of calls I receive from the media and elsewhere inquiring about the imminent demise of independent cable, as if that is a foregone conclusion.

In response, I would just say, "Don't write us off just yet, folks." In fact, if I were you, I wouldn't even bet against us. History has shown you'll likely lose.

Facing challenges isn't new for owners of independent cable businesses in small markets. It's a way of life. But for many independents, it's been such an extremely rewarding way of life that they'll continue-in spite of the challenges they face.

This week in Kansas City, Mo., we will hold our 7th annual National Cable Conference for Independent Cable Businesses. We've titled this conference, "Taking You Across the Digital Divide!"

We've called it this for a reason: to show the industry, the media, the Federal Communications Commission and Congress how independent cable businesses have already crossed this divide and are doing quite well, thank you very much.

Let me give just two of the many examples from our members that illustrate this point.

I recently had the honor of attending the grand opening of a brand-new Mediacom Communications Corp. call center in Chillicothe, Ill. This facility, based in rural central Illinois, is the touchstone of one company's incredible commitment to serve smaller markets and rural customers.

Mediacom subscribers in Illinois can already receive advanced services that folks in urban areas may not get for some time.

What's more incredible, at least to many pundits in the business, is that like Mediacom, independent cable businesses of various sizes have based their business plans solely on serving these smaller markets and rural areas, and they are succeeding.

My other example comes from Glide, a small town in rural, and I mean rural, Oregon. Glide is a picturesque little place in remote southwest Oregon not too far from the famous Crater Lake.

But Glide is also where a little 400-subscriber cable company, Glide Cablevision, has launched cable-modem service to the 600 homes it passes.

In a front-page story from the June, 9, 2000 edition of The News-Review in Douglas County, Ore., one of Glide Cable-vision's new cable-modem customers states his satisfaction. "I'm very pleased and shocked that little old Glide is on the cutting edge for this," said Gil Emry, a retired computer systems engineer for Hughes Aircraft.

Don't be shocked, Gil. It happens all of the time.

Why have independent cable businesses succeeded, and are continuing to succeed, in spite of the long odds and challenges against them? Most would think it's bad enough considering lower density of customers per mile, tougher access to financing, and generally higher programming costs, let alone competition from satellite and the disproportionate burden of laws and regulations on smaller systems.

I'll give you four quick reasons why independent operators continue to succeed in smaller markets:

Community. These businesses are seen as the "link" to truly advanced, but local telecommunications services in their areas. The men and women who work in these businesses live in the communities they serve, and they enjoy being a part of the community and contributing back to it in many ways as a true partner.

Family. Many independent cable businesses are "family" businesses in which generations, or brothers and sisters, and extended family are involved in the business. It's more than a job. It's a calling.

Fun. The men and women of these businesses love their business and truly enjoy serving their customers and opening the door to new, advanced services.

Entrepreneurial Spirit. The men and women of these businesses very ably continue the long line of cable pioneers in their industry. They are willing to take the risks and face the challenges. They know they can and will succeed. And they know that just because they work in smaller markets doesn't mean they don't have the background or sophistication to make a business work-it's just the opposite.

So, don't write our epitaph just yet. With all of the many opportunities available in today's industry, I believe independent cable is on the verge of a great new era of technology and service.

Oh, and there's one other thing while I'm on the subject. Just because one small cable operator in Colorado turns his system over to direct-broadcast satellite doesn't mean that the thousands of other independent cable businesses out there will sport dishes on their customers'homes anytime soon. Quite the contrary.

Granted, today's challenges are stiff. I've said many times that the challenges independent cable faces today are far greater than what was experienced in 1992, when cable was reregulated. However, the competitive spirit in independent cable burns hot-very hot.

As Mark Twain, whose death was incorrectly reported in the news, once said, "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

On behalf of independent cable businesses, we agree.

Matt Polka is president of the American Cable Association.