Hamlets hear an Echo

A bird in the hand worth plenty as EchoStar gains

EchoStar is trying to win the West one town at a time.

Tiny Center, Colo. (pop. 2,400) is its latest conquest, an example of how the expansionist satcaster plans to help small municipalities unplug a cash-draining cable system and propagate dishes across the plains.

The city voted to shut down the 20-year-old municipal cable plant as of Aug. 15 rather than pay $500,000 to upgrade the system and foot a new HBO bill that came in at $9.50 per subscriber. The creaky cable system, installed by the city in 1984, has lost money each of the past three years, said town superintendent of utilities Tim Ruggles.

EchoStar approached the town before the vote, offering to give the city a cut of the sign-up fees of each new sub. The city agreed, eager to get that cable system off the books, and last week dozens of Dish Network vans rolled into town bearing hundreds of satellite dishes, digital video recorders and high-def TV receivers.

The new tech will represent a significant leap for residents of the agricultural town nestled in the San Luis Valley 250 miles south of Denver. But then, so too would a traffic light.

“When we hear of a town struggling with their upgrade, we look for opportunities there,” said EchoStar spokesman Mark Lumpkin.

The city charged residents $17 for 22 analog channels on the antiquated network that can’t do high-speed Internet connections and was known to go offline for 12 hours at a time.

Basic Dish service will cost $29.99 for 70 digital channels, including the locals. The city will take a 50% cut of the commission collected by InterMountain First Aid and Safety, which operates the local RadioShack franchise.

The city initially offered its franchise to Bresnan Communications, a cabler with systems in nearby Alamosa and Monte Vista, and to Rocky Mountain Cable in Salida.

“Bigger towns have a cable provider,” Ruggles said. “We shopped it around to those same folks and they weren’t interested. I guess it wasn’t feasible.”

The city also contacted DirecTV, which would have been happy to slap a dish on individual homes but didn’t have the local cavalry available to do the conversion en masse, as Dish had promised.

“Dish Network is willing to help any municipality burdened with operating antiquated cable TV service,” said Dish VP of customer service Robert Kondilas.

EchoStar’s Lumpkin said beleaguered local cable systems are becoming more common as wires age and those off the grid of the big operators struggle to pay for upgrades.

The satcaster’s first conquest was Ouray (pop. 300), an outpost 30 miles from Telluride, which unplugged its cable system last spring.

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