The start of the new year will be all too familiar for local television watchers, whose viewing world will continue to be one without cable.
Last spring's hopes that the city's first cable programming would come on line next month have died in a complicated--and potentially far-reaching--dispute between the cable television industry and the telephone company that wants to build the local cable system.
A federal ruling on the matter is several months overdue. Even after the ruling is delivered, appeals could further delay resolution of the controversy, leaving hanging the question of just when the city's 15,000 homes will finally get cable hookups. "We just don't know, unfortunately," said Michelle Ogle, city spokesman. "We had no idea it would take this long."
The city has been relegated to the sidelines while General Telephone Co. of California, the cable franchise holder, wrestles with the cable industry over territorial rights. The California Cable Television Assn. contends that the Cerritos system, as proposed, would violate federal rules protecting cable companies from unfair competition.
"It's a very important case from the cable industry's point of view," said Michael Morris of the state cable association. If the telephone company is allowed to go ahead with its Cerritos proposal, he continued, "it would be a very dangerous precedent for the cable industry."
The cable association is arguing that the financial and corporate arrangements of the Cerritos proposal will put General Telephone in a position where it is in essence providing cable service in its own phone service area. The cable association says that is prohibited without a special waiver from the Federal Communications Commission.
"They think we are entering into the cable TV business, and in fact we are not," said Darrell Hughes of General Telephone. He was emphatic that the Cerritos venture does not violate FCC protections.
The National Cable Television Assn. has joined the state group in filing papers with the FCC in opposing General Telephone's request for permission to build the system. It will be up to the FCC to decide in a ruling that may come early next year.
The success of General Telephone's application is no small matter for local viewers, since the company was the only one willing to give the city the kind of cable service it wanted. About 70 cable firms were invited to bid for the city franchise two years ago, but few expressed interest in meeting local requirements that all the cable wires be underground and that cable subscribers have access to a variety of novel services, such as home banking and shopping.
City Has No Alternate Plan
Both requests increase costs, particularly the installation of underground wires, which is more than twice as expensive as stringing cable wires above ground.
If the General Telephone deal collapses, Ogle said she is unsure what city officials would do next to bring cable into the community--among the last in the Southeast area without cable hookups. "I think our residents want cable, and we'd like to provide it for them," she said, noting that her office handles about 40 calls a month from people asking for cable.
The $7.5-million cable system approved by the city last March is a joint venture of General Telephone and Apollo Cablevision, a subsidiary of T. L. Robak, a San Luis Obispo-based company that is one of the largest cable builders on the West Coast.
General Telephone would finance construction of the cable network and lease it in part to Apollo and in part to General Telephone's parent company, GTE Corp. Apollo would provide the basic programming and operate the system, while GTE would use the lines to conduct experiments with new transmission technology linked to about 5,000 homes.
The experimentation will focus on the use of glass, fiber optic cable to carry both television and telephone signals, as opposed to the conventional use of two separate metal cables to independently carry voice and video transmissions. The quality of different transmissions to the 5,000 homes would be compared to determine if fiber optic technology can succeed in a large-scale, non-laboratory setting. Hughes listed the questions: "Will it work, how much will it cost, and can we do it again and again?"
The research would be carried on for three to five years. With 5,000 homes involved, Hughes said the fiber optics experimentation would be the largest of its kind ever conducted. "It's unique in the world," he said.