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Hookups Set for October : Cable Firm Delays East Valley Service

Times Staff Writer

Cable TV service, which was to have become available in the East San Fernando Valley by midnight tonight, will be delayed until October--or longer, said officials of United Cable Television of Los Angeles.

The cable company, working under a city-imposed deadline, was to have installed the first 50 miles of the 1,140-mile system by midnight. As of Friday, United had installed about 15 miles of cable.

As a result, the company faces an initial penalty of $150,000 plus $300 for each day’s delay in reaching the 50-mile mark, to be paid to the city.

The East Valley system originally was to have been finished by the end of this year. In December, United asked for--and received--from the Los Angeles City Council a 10-month extension to October, 1986, to complete the system.

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The council, which awards franchises for cable firms to operate in the city, established deadlines for completion of the system, with financial sanctions if United failed to meet them. July 1 is the first deadline.

United President William Cullen blamed the latest delay on problems beyond his company’s control--specifically, the slowness of utility companies in approving United’s requests to string cable on utility poles.

The cable company must shift the wires on the poles to make room for the cable. The utilities want to check every pole--and there are thousands in the East Valley--before and after the cable is strung to make sure it is done properly. However, the utilities don’t have enough personnel to enable the cable firm to keep up with its construction schedule, said Mark Ambruster, an attorney for United. Cullen also said there were some “communication problems” between United and the utilities, which delayed work further.

“We’re doing the best that we can,” Cullen said.

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Ambruster said the company has been caught in a “Catch-22 situation.” He said United has been ordered by one city entity--the City Council--to meet a deadline, while another city entity--the Department of Water and Power--cannot give the approvals required to meet that deadline.

Kenneth Miyoshi, assistant chief electrical engineer for the DWP, denied that the city-owned utility has done anything to slow work. He said the DWP wants to check each power pole because, if certain wires are not properly spaced, it could electrocute a worker.

Cullen said Friday the problems were being worked out and the cable company will be able to start stringing cable at a rate of 2 1/2 miles a day. However, United expects it will be October before it can start providing service to the first homes because of the additional time required to build a transmission facility, Cullen said.

Because the company feels the latest delay is beyond its control, Cullen said, it will ask the city to waive the penalties.

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Councilmen Ernani Bernardi and Howard Finn, who together represent the East Valley--one of the few areas in the city still without cable TV--said they want the company to start paying fines. A proposal is due before the council shortly to increase the fines to $500 a day.

Finn said the penalties are the best incentive to complete the system quickly. “That’s the only way we’re going to get it done,” he said.

However, Ambruster said, “The fines don’t do any good if the cable company is doing everything in its power to build the system.” He said the fines would be passed on to subscribers in the form of higher rates.

The decision on whether the fines should be waived will be made by Susan Herman, manager of the city’s Department of Telecommunications. Herman said she hasn’t decided, but since she took over as head of the department April 1, she has come to believe that United has “proceeded in good faith” to complete installation. Herman said she expects to make a decision within two weeks, after consulting with the City Council.

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United officials a few months ago said they could work harder to complete the system, but would not unless the city granted a 10-year extension of the company’s franchise to operate in the East Valley. Company officials said they didn’t want to continue investing in the $60-million system because the franchise is due to expire in 1987, which wouldn’t allow enough time to make money.

The franchise extension has yet to come before the full council for final action.

Nonetheless, United officials decided to go ahead with construction of the system without the extension.

Ambruster, citing the unanimous approval of the franchise extension by the city’s citizen advisory Board of Telecommunications, said, “The company has enough level of comfort now that the city will grant the franchise extension.”

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Took ‘First Step’

“Somebody had to take the first step,” Cullen said. “We decided it was in our best interest to demonstrate to the city that we intend to build the system. We expect favorable consideration (on the franchise renewal) in return.”

“Our intent is to build the plant as quickly as possible,” Cullen said. “It’s in our economic interest to do so. Right now, we are looking at an $8-million investment (the amount that United has spent so far) without subscribers.”

Even if people are unhappy with United’s progress, there is little anyone can do about it, said cable TV experts at City Hall who requested anonymity.

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Under a recent court decision striking down the city’s awarding of exclusive cable TV franchises, another cable company could come into the East Valley. But cable TV experts said they doubt whether any other company would be interested in that franchise.

Two other companies had been involved in the bidding war for the franchise won by United in September, 1983. But one of those companies is now bankrupt. The other dropped out of the bidding. In addition, cable TV has proved to be less lucrative than once thought.

And, even if another firm is interested in providing cable TV service to the East Valley, city officials doubt whether it now could complete the system any faster than United because of the time required to get government approvals.


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