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Concerns about cable service in Ellsworth topic for discussion during village board meeting

Concerns over poor service by Ellsworth's local cable television provider were a topic of discussion at the Ellsworth Village Board's monthly meeting Monday evening.

Mid-Continent Communications of South Dakota had been Ellsworth's exclusive cable provider since it bought out U.S. Cable a few years ago and is one of the largest media and internet providers in the Midwest. Yet according village resident and cable subscriber Jean Marko, Mid-Continent has not upgraded the cable TV package in Ellsworth since buying the franchise despite the fact they continue to raise rates. She also stated that customer service is poor, that other local communities, even smaller ones like Elmwood, have better cable service with more channels, including HD channels, and that the village and the village board's Cable TV Committee had not done a good job of oversight over the franchise they have given to Mid-Continent.

"In Elmwood they get 36 channels in HD compared to the few we get here in Ellsworth," Marko said. "The sound differential between programs and commercials is extreme and you have to constantly control the volume.  We've had channels go off the air at different times like Lifetime for example and when I called to complain I was treated in a very rude fashion over the phone by one of their employees. What I want to know is how other communities around us can get better service for less cost?"

Marko said she wasn't alone in her complaints against Mid-Continent and there others among the 500 subscribers the company has signed up in Ellsworth with similar problems of poor quality and bad customer service. During the discussion, board member Neil Gulbranson reiterated a problem he had with the service not offering selected local channels, like WEAU out of Eau Claire.

Dan Nelson, a spokesperson from Mid-Continent, addressed the meeting after Marko spoke. He apologized for the bad customer service and was also sympathetic to concerns by village residents but said Mid-Continent and the whole cable industry is facing problems which affect villages like Ellsworth.

"We do not have the technological capacity, (given the current cable infrastructure in place), to provide the kind of service we would like to give," Nelson said. "We offer the village internet service and we believe the data services and speeds in the village are comparable to other communities. We are looking at a cable service upgrade but it will be next year at the latest before it can happen. Right now the profit margins in cable are very thin. We're being squeezed by local stations who are charging ever-increasing fees to put them on our systems which we are forced by law to do. And when we do put them on our systems territorial interests and agreements of the stations prevent cable providers from putting certain stations in different markets. They're like gangs the way they protect their 'territories'. There's no other way to describe it. And it's costing us more and more to carry popular cable channels. That's where those rate increases are put and to be honest, it’s putting a lot of companies in our industry in distress. I can't answer for how other cable companies operate but I'm sure they find their money somehow either from their customers or the way they do business."

Nelson said Mid-Continent pays the village around $8,000 annually for their franchise fee.