David-and-Goliath Saga Brings Cable to Skid Row

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Tuesday, HBO finally came to skid row.

As did the History Channel, Bravo, CNN and a host of other cable stations that most Los Angeles residents take for granted.

People huddled in the lobbies of single-room-occupancy hotels in the impoverished downtown neighborhood, debating the merits of basic versus premium service.

They waited anxiously for cable technicians who, true to form, turned up in the last half hour of 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. appointments. Some waited, only to find out a wiring connection was wrong and they'd have to go another night without the World Wrestling Federation.

But no matter the day's inconveniences, skid row residents celebrated their new cable service and credited one of their own for taking on a huge utility company--Michael McNellis, a modest man living on disability in the Courtland Hotel on Wall Street.

"A lot of people on skid row feel so marginalized and not a part of society and they just let these things go," said McNellis, who was reminded even Tuesday that getting cable involved patience.

Janice Wood, former president of the Board of Information Technology Commission, which oversees cable franchises, stressed the importance of cable's arrival on those mean streets.

"We're talking about people who literally live in a single room, who have no movie theaters, no bowling alleys, not a lot of restaurants," said Wood, now a commissioner on the city's Board of Public Works. "These are people who don't have a lot of money to spend on entertainment other than television."

The advent of cable service on skid row may mark a watershed in Los Angeles telecommunications. Officials believe the area is probably the last densely populated neighborhood to be wired for cable.

The community of mostly low-wage workers, veterans and the disabled complained for 20 years to a succession of cable companies that made promises and then excuses for not providing service.

And because it is a poor, minority community, its leaders alleged that the inaction amounted to redlining, a charge denied by cable companies, including the current franchise holder, AT&T; Broadband.

But now the hotel tenants' efforts may end up changing future cable regulation.

Officials predict that when cable contracts expire next year, new terms will more strictly require cable operators to serve all.

Joe Shelby Walker, 65, who has lived in the Carlton Hotel on Wall Street for 39 years, was one of the first on his block to get service. He stayed up Monday night watching a John Wayne movie and a couple of gangster films.

"This is gonna keep me off the streets at night," he said.

The arrival of cable on skid row is a reminder that a little mouse can upend the mightiest elephant.

About a year ago, McNellis said, he got fed up with the poor reception of the local channels on his 19-inch color television, a problem common in most of downtown where large concrete structures block out all but the strongest signals.

He began to attend cable commission meetings, raising the plight of his skid row neighbors. The hesitation by cable operators involved money, agreed city officials.

"They thought they were not going to get an acceptable return on their investment because much of the community down there is low-income and in some cases transients," said Gregory Fuentes, a regulatory officer with the city Information Technology Agency.

But McNellis, who takes medications for a mental disability, found out about the Universal Service Requirement, which mandates service to all customers who want it, with some exceptions.

City officials said there was some discussion by AT&T; of a way to avoid wiring skid row. McNellis gathered 400 signatures on a petition to the commission.

But AT&T; never formally sought a waiver and agreed to begin digging trenches for cable. The work began on 5th and 6th streets and may later extend to other parts of skid row. A couple of buildings with the capacity for aerial wiring received service a few months ago.

AT&T; Broadband has had the Central City franchise for about a year and a half, and officials said they were hampered by a moratorium during the Democratic National Convention on digging, which led to delays in getting permits.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents downtown and helped to speed the permits, commended AT&T; for hooking up a "previously untested client base."

"Skid row residents deserve to have the same amenities any of us want, to be entertained and to stay abreast of the news," she said.

Perry Parks, AT&T; Broadband's vice president of local government affairs, said the company will begin a vigorous marketing campaign, the same as in Beverly Hills. But in some low-income communities, as few as 30% of the residents who have access to AT&T;'s cable service subscribe, he said.

"We don't anticipate skid row to be much different, but we could be wrong," said Parks. Unlike telephone service, cable has no discounts for poor people.

Bud Hayes, president of Skid Row Housing Corp., which owns the Courtland and 22 other downtown single-room-occupancy hotels, said skid row could turn out to be a good bet. Although the approximately 3,000 residents don't have a lot of disposable income, many are veterans and elderly getting $1,500 to $1,600 in monthly benefits and pensions, who can afford $26.50 for one of the cheaper cable options.

As McNellis waited Tuesday for the cable guy, he was excited about tuning into the History Channel and A&E.; The technician worked for two hours and finally gave up, saying someone with more specialized equipment would have to try again the next day.

"I knew it," McNellis said. "I'll be the last one to get hooked up."

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