OFF THE AIR

YOU'RE ELDERLY, POOR AND LIVING DOWNTOWN. AND YOU WANT CABLE TV? GOOD LUCK.

Mabel Wambach is not exactly screaming for her MTV. At 83 years of age, Wambach really doesn't scream anymore, and her closest experience to music videos is watching the bubbles every Saturday night on Lawrence Welk.

Aside from Welk, she laments, "the local stations have become disgusting. There's nothing good on TV. I'd like to see some of the classics--the old movies. I'd really enjoy that. But now, I go to bed early because there's nothing to do."

Actually, she'd rather be watching baseball or some other game on her TV, but most sports programming is on cable television. And that's the rub.

Mabel Wambach and others at the Westward Ho, the ancient, once-ritzy downtown hotel converted into a government-subsidized home for 300 aged and infirmed people, can't get cable.

It's another glum fact of life for low-income residents of downtown Phoenix who don't have a lot of other stuff to do.

Cable TV's becoming a way of life for millions. But for most of the downtown corridor of Phoenix, cable is still unavailable. Dimension Cable's contract with the city gives the company exclusive rights to cable sales within most of the city, and the downtown area is not a wiring priority.

(Ironically, even City Hall, which produces its own cable network--Phoenix Channel 35--is not wired to receive cable, either. City employees have to intercept their own live council broadcasts so that they can view what cable customers can see.)

The hotel management can't afford the cable monopoly's up-front cost for a special connection. Dimension representatives told the hotel operators if they didn't like the deal, they could go elsewhere. Unfortunately for Westward Ho residents, there is no "elsewhere." The hotel and cable company have been dickering for years but haven't reached an agreement.

"I think one could safely say it boils down to money," says Westward Ho attorney Don Miner. "Dimension Cable admits they have cable within half a block of Westward Ho, but they don't want to extend that cable to the hotel unless we commit to this astronomical payment. That number is so prohibitively high. That just can't be done."

Dimension has offered many deals to Westward Ho manager Pat Fritchey since 1983. A few years back, she says, the cable company offered to wire the hotel for $4,000 down and $200 per unit in this 290-unit complex--a $62,000 entertainment fee. Two years ago, Dimension negotiators told Fritchey that if Westward Ho would guarantee 80 percent participation, then the company would hook on. "There's just no way," she says. "These people just can't afford that. We're elderly and handicapped here."

After seven years of haggling, Fritchey doesn't have anything to show for it. She's frustrated and vents her displeasure on the city and the company.

"I think the reason they are doing it, quite frankly, is because we're a low-income, fixed-income group of people," she says. "I don't think we should be discriminated against because of that. They are making scads of money elsewhere. Granted, they may not make a whole lot out of this place, but since they do have a monopoly, they should have some type of responsibility for providing that service."

The 1984 Cable Communications Policy, passed in the hands-off Reagan era, freed most cable systems from rate and service control. Now, with complaints pouring in about cable service, the Federal Communications Commission under the auspices of another Republican administration is calling for a changing of the rules.

FCC chairman Alfred Sikes has said he wants to eliminate city franchise monopolies. A federal action would allow other firms to compete for the $50 million Phoenix market and other Valley cities. Dimension Cable has more than 300,000 subcribers, 140,000 in Phoenix. Only one other company, Insight Cablevision, has a franchise agreement in a small part of northwest Phoenix.

It didn't used to be that way. Phoenix had four competing companies in the early Eighties when cable-TV crews started digging up the streets. That competition touched off territorial wars and competitive pricing. Buyouts and territorial trades, all with the blessing of deregulation, restricted the field of competition.

The Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates other utilities and fields numerous complaints about cable service, can't do anything about it the problem at the Westward Ho. "Our hands are tied," says ACC attorney Liz Kushibab. And there are no hearing boards or city commissions to solve cable problems. When Miner asked the city attorney's office for an interpretation of the contract, he was referred back to the city's cable contract office.

The city considers these cases as private squabbles. For not getting involved and giving permission to tear up the streets, the city gets a 5 percent sales commission from Dimension. This year's cut for the city is approaching $1.6 million. "We don't enforce private contracts," city contract administrator Terry Parker says. "They need to keep negotiating with the cable operator to see if they can get new terms." Dimension officials say they have a strict guideline and formula, and the Westward Ho just happens to be in the wrong building and the wrong area. Their costs for wiring an older building are also a concern. But, the building engineers pooh-pooh that idea, noting that the old hotel was recently rewired so that every tenant can hook into new TV antennae.

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