KAHULUI - Overwhelming support for Maui County's only public access channel, Akaku: Maui Community Television, poured out before state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs officials Wednesday night.
The department has been conducting meetings on Molokai, Lanai and Maui since October to hear from residents about what they think of Oceanic Time Warner Cable, which is currently seeking to renew its franchise to deliver cable services to Maui County for the next 20 years.
Oceanic is required by state law to provide facilities, equipment, channels and financial support for public, educational and government access programming, which is provided by Akaku. Some residents have accused the cable provider of not granting Akaku channels the same format and signal quality as other channels, of trying to move Akaku channels to "digital Siberia" or channels that are nearly impossible to find, and of not providing adequate funding for Akaku programs.
Oceanic's current 15-year contract is set to expire at the end of this year.
More than 70 residents who either watch, have taken media classes or currently work for Akaku showed up to testify at Wednesday's meeting, held at Maui Waena Intermediate School.
"Akaku provides a voice for the community, Akaku itself means reflection," Gov. Neil Abercrombie said in a video clip, produced by Akaku, that was screened at the meeting. "It gives the community a chance to reflect on the issues of the day, on positions that might be taken as a result, it's an opportunity for dialogue and an opportunity for basic information to go out there. It's not going to be matched by anything that would be coming from Oahu."
He added that it is imperative that the Neighbor Islands receive high-speed broadband Internet connection to make sure residents are not "left out of the digital age that is upon us right now."
On its three channels - 53, 54 and 55 - Akaku provides local programming that covers Maui County Council meetings, primary and general elections as well as community events. It also hosts a number of media literacy programs for both adults and youths.
"I'm one of Maui's youth. Individuals like myself who want to go into broadcast media or production, we rely on Akaku more than most people realize," said Ian Camit, a senior at Kihei Charter School and an Akaku intern. "The pursuit of a career in media, that hands-on experience is paramount to that future, to our future, to Maui's future.
"Akaku provides that experience, which we, the youth, need. There is nowhere else for us to go on this island, Akaku is it. Furthermore, our own voices are often unheard, most of the time because we're really nervous and we don't want to go out in front of crowds like this. I am worried that without it (Akaku), I'm going to be blind going into media and completely unprepared. With the funding (for the program), our voices, your youth, their voices are heard."
While support for the public access channel was apparent Wednesday, so was the community's concern about granting Oceanic a 20-year contract. Slow broadband Internet speeds, disappearing channels and poor customer service were just some of the concerns with the cable provider brought up in testimony Wednesday.
"I have the most basic, 'nothing' package, and it costs me $69.40 every month," said resident and subscriber Peter King. "Over the years, Oceanic has dropped channels left and right, MSNBC, WE Channel 66, but my bill never goes down. So how are you paying the same for less product every year, every month? Who is to say, two years from now, I'm not left with five channels and still paying the same $69?"
He said the renewal application submitted by Oceanic is vague and lacks "hard numbers" that hold the cable company accountable for providing a certain level of service, whether it comes to number of channels, broadband speeds or other services.
"Oceanic doesn't care, this contract needs teeth and hard numbers," King said.
A few residents shared their personal frustrations in dealing with Oceanic as a service provider, saying it sometimes takes days if not weeks before Internet or cable TV is restored.
If granted the contract, Oceanic will be transitioning all of its current analog channels to the digital spectrum, which will enhance digital services, create more high-definition channels, faster broadband Internet speeds and expand programming services, according to Oceanic attorney Brian Kang, who represented the service provider at the meeting Wednesday.
Last year, Oceanic netted $68.5 million in annual revenues from Maui County, according to records published online by Akaku. The cable company is required by state law to give 3 percent of its revenue to public access television, Akaku.
"Our job is to empower our community's voice through access to media, which is a completely different way of thinking from just making as much money as possible," Akaku President and Chief Executive Officer Jay April told The Maui News. "That's especially important on Maui. We're the only county in the world that's separated by water, our communities are extremely diverse, we want to make sure there isn't a digital divide. . . . We would like the state to recognize that this monopoly (Oceanic) needs to provide certain things for the future."
Those things include affordable cable and high-speed Internet, consistent access to Akaku channels and increased funding and capital support.
Others who attended Wednesday's meeting, including Maui County Council Member Don Couch and Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa, voiced support for a shorter-term contract in order to "keep the pressure" on Oceanic and also to accommodate the unforeseeable and rapid changes in technology.
"Twenty years is way too long, 20 years ago I had to carry a camera on my shoulder, now this camera I have on my phone is better quality," Couch, a former Akaku employee and producer who now sits on its board of directors, said in testimony. "Technology changes so fast these days, we got to shorten it (the contract)."
Couch said that it was covering elections and interviewing candidates while he was employed with Akaku in the 1990s that ultimately prompted him to move toward government.
"I moved into government solely because of Akaku. If I'm going to complain about stuff, I should get involved. That's how I went from IT guy to where I am now," he said.
Couch noted that over the past 20 years, cable providers have made it harder for Akaku to provide public access television.
"All along the way, first with Chronicle (Cablevision) and then Time Warner, we have been fought. We have been getting as much as we are entitled to out of the cable companies, but we have been fought and we are still being fought. It's time for Time Warner to step up and be a partner with us here on Maui."
Testimony may be submitted to DCCA before 4:30 p.m. Nov. 15 by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, by fax to (808) 586-2625 or by mail to DCCA-CATV, P.O. Box 541, Honolulu 96809.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.