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Cable issues prompt Rapid Cable renewal debate

New Richmond's cable access channel has gone black. That's just one of several frustrating issues the Cable TV Regulatory Board will discuss at its regular meeting slated for Monday.

The board is beginning to review the performance of Rapid Cable, which took over the exclusive contract in New Richmond last October when Frontier's operation was sold.

The board is in charge of deciding what company will hold exclusive rights to the city's cable customers. The exclusivity agreement is reviewed every five years, but the current agreement was extended 18 months when Frontier was sold last fall.

Thanks to the extension, city and cable officials have now had a few months to see Rapid Cable's operation in action. Some admit they are less than impressed so far.

"It's been really bad," said City Clerk Joe Bjelland. "They're having trouble getting going."

Besides the access channel issue, Bjelland said customers have experienced interruption of service with little or no notice.

Due to network restrictions, the cable service has also had to drop the Eau Claire station from its lineup. Some residents complained that they no longer have access to Wisconsin news via cable.

"They're not doing a very good job of communicating with residents," he said.

Bjelland said the new company is promising some upgraded fiber optic service in the near future, which will be a benefit to residents.

But for the moment, quite a few bugs are having to be worked out, he added.

Bjelland said Frontier operated in the city for 20 years with few problems.

A steady turn-over in employees at Rapid Cable the past few months has made the transition worse, Bjelland claimed.

He said it's difficult to find the right person to call when customers have a complaint or problem.

Alex Birkholz, who oversees the cable access channel operation at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, said he's been frustrated by the lack of action by Rapid Cable.

The cable access channel has been off the air since April 18. That's when Rapid moved the channel's equipment from old Frontier offices in downtown New Richmond.

"Our wire is still going to downtown," Birkholz said. "We're only two blocks away from Rapid Cable's office, yet we still haven't been able to get back on the air."

Birkholz said officials have promised that the access channel would be up and running soon.

"We've lost a lot of programming since April 18," he said. Among the missed programs are local church services, sporting events and school programs.

Birkholz said he doesn't fault local employees for the problems, noting that company officials seem sincere about their hopes to get things corrected.

"Their hearts are in the right place," he said. "But the fact remains, the problem still exists."

Once the bugs are worked out, Birkholz said the company's planned upgrades will be worth the wait.

In the interim, Birkholz said, some customers have dropped their subscriptions to cable as problems persist.

Birkholz said he hopes everything will work out soon.

Rapid Cable general manager David Daack said the company is well aware of the problems and are working hard to correct them.

"We're in the process of working out the bugs," he said. "There's definitely some issues that we've had to deal with."

Daack said Rapid hopes to have the local cable access channel back up and running this week.

"I hope we're ready to roll very, very soon," he said.

He said an underground cable had been cut, which caused the problem.

The black-out issue for the Eau Claire station has also been resolved, Daack said, along with issues with service call response.

Daack said Rapid Cable has hired several contractors to help the company "catch up on our backlog" of service calls.

He said the business hopes to hire several full-time employees locally in the near future to handle service calls.

"We want to make sure we bring New Richmond back up to where they need to be," he said.

Apart from the bugs in the transition, Rapid Cable is getting closer to adding digital and high-speed data service to its customer offerings.

"Pretty soon, we're going to have some nice things to offer," he said.

Representatives of Rapid Cable say they will attend Monday's regulatory board meeting to address the city's concerns and to assure customers that problems are being solved.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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