Public loses reception while Cox and governments fight

Way back before cable, satellite or the inscrutable DSL technology, there were rabbit ears on TVs.

You'd maneuver them around for better reception, or maybe bribe a small second cousin with candy to hold them just right during a broadcast.

Nowadays, there's Cox Communications, which pretty much controls the bundled services market in Laguna Beach.

Cox is like the sometimes-entertaining uncle who talks over people during a family holiday party. You tolerate him and try to look on the bright side.

This description is a lot more polite than what you can read on various social media sites. People are ruthless. Like any public service provider, Cox gets hammered and rarely praised.

So it perhaps was not surprising that at the Jan. 17 Laguna Beach City Council meeting Cox fought back. In a mic-dropping short speech, Kristen Camuglia, Cox's government affairs manager, gave notice.

The issue was the city's plan to underground the power lines — lines that also carry Cox wires — in Laguna Canyon, and Camuglia made it clear that Cox was no one's whipping boy.

"Cox is consistently singled out as the only service provider not reimbursed for our costs when we're forced to underground our facilities," Camuglia said.

Now in order to fully appreciate this dialogue, let me paint the scene and tone of her voice.

She started softly and politely, reading from a carefully worded script. Even from the outset, however, a sharp edge laced every sentence.

"Cox has always strived to be a good partner with your city with regard to its undergrounding efforts, the likes of which are unprecedented in any of Cox's service territories in over 18 states that we serve," she said, making it very clear that Laguna is different — and not in a good way.

"However, at this time, when the council's considering significantly ramping up its efforts, we feel it opportune to bring to your attention that Cox is in disagreement with the city on its reimbursement policy," she said.

That's when she complained about Cox being picked on, adding that it's not the first time.

"We've raised this issue with the city for a number of years to no avail," she said. "We feel it's a simple matter of being treated fairly, and it is completely within the authority of this council to remedy going forward."

By now, everyone was paying close attention.

"As more projects come forward from your city, we're concerned that we're not going to be able to continue to front the entire costs, including all the associated costs of staffing and resource allocations, especially at the city's desired pace, without proper compensation and lead time for planning," she said. "In closing, we support the city's efforts to bring more undergrounding projects to the city, to the extent that Cox is treated on par with other impacted stakeholders and that we are properly reimbursed for our expenses."

And with that, she was done.

Mayor Toni Iseman quickly grabbed the mic and tried to deftly shift control by talking about pricing. She was concerned about Cox continuing to raise its prices, especially for seniors.

While she thanked Cox for sending a representative, she hoped they could talk again about a variety of concerns that she hears from the public.

"Probably about 20 to 25% of my phones calls and emails are from local residents who are very concerned about the cost of cable television and asking us for alternatives, so maybe that will be the next time you come in, and you can talk about some ideas for reducing the costs for our residents," Iseman said.

Whether it's pricing, the lack of L.A. Dodgers' baseball or the fundamental lack of choice, Cox clearly is under siege, and this exchange exemplifies it. And it's been going on for several years.

In 2010, Cox went before this same body and asked it not to join the anti-monopoly bandwagon. In other words, Cox had submitted an FCC "effective competition" filing saying that since DirecTV held about 15% market share in Laguna at the time, Cox was no longer a monopoly.

Laguna agreed (unlike Dana Point and some other cities), making Cox exempt from cable-rate regulation, according to the FCC. However, the city maintains that Cox's rates are still lower than what could be allowed under the federal requirements.

Rate issues aside, many Orange County residents still can't get Internet or telephone service without Cox.

Are there a few complicated workarounds if you're really determined? Yes.

Do most people do that? No.

Instead, the public has to sit, watch and wait while Cox and government officials bicker over who is going to do what on any project.

One thing is certain: Cox is tired of taking the blame.

And the public is just tired.

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DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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