Kelley: New Cable TV system worth exploring

Steve Kelley

"How about a city/county cable company with better service and lower prices?"

The above question was in Pulaski County Judge-Executive Steve Kelley's State Of The County address Tuesday to Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce. The statement would indicate Kelley is suggesting competition for TV cable franchise holder Spectrum which serves both the city and county.

How far discussions have gone is a very real question, however, as officials from both the city and county say they know of no current plans to establish a city-county operated television cable system.

"To my knowledge there is nothing concrete going on to establish a cable TV system," responded Somerset City Clerk Nick Bradley. "Ah, there may be an occasional mention ... about something in the future ... but that's all."

"Everybody wants better service and lower prices," laughed County Treasurer Joan Isaacs " ... but I know of nothing like that."

She caught her breath at what she called the financial awesomeness of establishing a new television cable system. "I can't imagine something like that ... it would take technicians, vehicles ... utility pole right-of-way," said Isaacs who handles purse strings for the county. She said the few complaints she has heard are about extension of service; where the current franchisee serves and where it doesn't. Isaacs says the state currently collects franchise fees paid by the cable company and returns a share of the money to the county.

When reached on Friday, Judge Kelley acknowledged that the system is just an idea at this point -- with no actual plans presented. What he envisions, however, is a public-private partnership (P3) which would utilize the highly-touted but delayed Kentucky Wired Project.

"The problem we are facing is that due to the sparsely-populated areas of our large country, we don't get the level of service our residents need and deserve," Kelley said. "It is understandable that a for-profit business cannot feasibly serve the county. With the expected completion of the Kentucky Wired project in Pulaski County, we would have the backbone we need to design a true and effective P3 project that would serve nearly all residents with cable and high-speed internet at a more affordable cost. It is certainly worthy of discussion."

Few, if any, current city or county officials are old enough to remember legal problems evolving from competing television cable systems in Somerset; judicial directives which created frustrations from blackened TV screens.

Before 1960, the few Somerset and Pulaski County residents who owned TVs picked up "snowy" signals with rooftop antennas from maybe a Louisville or Lexington television station. If you recall, the antenna had an inside rotor with which you could adjust its direction to improve the signal, if possible. Television in the 1960's was very different from today's hundreds of TV channels. There was only three channels available; ABC, CBS, and NBC.

Somerset has an interesting television history, of which Hobe Withers Jr. a partner with his father, Hobe Withers Sr., in Hobe's Radio and Electronics, 119 Crab Orchard Street, had an integral part.

"My dad and Fritz Krueger had the first TV cable franchise in Somerset about 1960," recalled Hobe Jr. in an interview several years ago. "We sold it to Clyde House of Manchester." The elder Withers owned Hobe's Radio and Electronics and Krueger was a well-known Somerset attorney who served as commonwealth's attorney.

House operated the cable system as Television Reception Corporation. Somerset City Council later awarded the TV cable franchise to Charles Dunbar, a Florida resident, and Dunbar-Murphy & Co., a Florida Corporation. Dunbar proposed to pay the city $10,000 and 3 percent of the cable's gross revenue for the 20-year franchise.

House filed a lawsuit claiming Dunbar fraudulently obtained the franchise while acting as his (House's) agent or broker. A federal judge heard the case without a jury and ordered House to remove his television equipment from Somerset or pay Dunbar $350,000. The judge's order in May 1968 resulted in a month-long blackout of all cable television service to 1,200 Somerset customers. Dunbar's cable system wasn't ready, and House, by court order, couldn't operate, so neither cable system operated and Somerset residents were without television.

Hobe Withers Jr. said the blackout was impetus for Hobe's Radio and Electronics to install a translator; first WBIR Channel 10 in Knoxville and later WKYT Channel 27 in Lexington, to bring television to homes in the area without access to cable. The television signals were translated on Channel 12.

"We built an 80-foot tower (on a knob outside of town)," said Hobe Jr. A small antenna outside a house would bring good television reception from the translator signals.

In subsequent years, cable access and the number of channels exploded. Similarly, Judge Kelley noted that in the early 1980s, computers were a rarity but now everyone has a computer, tablet or smartphone. Because it's such a necessity today, the judge continued that many believe internet should be treated as a utility if private enterprise can't provide the infrastructure to ensure dependable connectivity throughout the county. He posed the question of whether it may the role of government "to step up and provide for its citizens.

"To not have it available to residents is akin to not having adequate roads, water or electric," he said on high-speed internet. "Without it, we will fall behind the world around us."

Janie Slaven contributed to this article.

Recommended for you