Lexington forced cable giant to table, got better franchise deal for consumers, city

It's worth taking a few minutes to praise Lexington's Urban County Council and the office of Mayor Jim Gray for holding Time Warner Cable to account.

It's kind of an odd story, considering the matchup. TWC's annual revenue is $22.6 billion and it has 15 million customers in 29 states. The Lexington Urban County Government has an annual budget of about half a billion and serves just more than 300,000 citizens.

TWC exists in the rarefied atmosphere of mergers and acquisitions, having gobbled up Insight, Lexington's former cable franchisee, only two years ago, and is now trying to merge with Comcast. If that merger goes through, Comcast will spin off some of its markets, including Lexington, to Charter Communications.

Under the franchise agreement the city must agree to a change of cable operator. In many times and cities that's the kind of thing that would happen with little discussion.

But in Lexington's case, pretty much everyone at city hall had been hearing tons of complaints about TWC's service. Too many blackouts, the local store wasn't open when citizens could actually get there, slow Internet.

So, for months a team of negotiators from the city, including Vice Mayor Linda Gorton and council members Julian Beard and Harry Clarke, met with TWC representatives to try to improve customer service but to little effect.

Then in October the council voted to deny the transfer of the cable franchise from TWC to Comcast and from Comcast to Charter.

It was a gutsy, nervy thing to do. So much so, that it drew national attention. "Kentucky city threatens to block Comacst/Time Warner cable merger," read the headline on the technology news website Ars Technica.

It also got the attention of TWC, which began then to negotiate in earnest.

The outcome, ratified last week by the council, is a much better franchise agreement going forward. Under it, TWC and later Charter will have extended office hours, faster broadband and a low-cost Internet option for families who can't afford cable but need to be connected to do homework, look for jobs and generally participate in the economy. Plus, the fine for failing to meet service standards grew fivefold, from $100 a day to $500.

"It took us a long time but we got to a good place," Gorton told the council Thursday.