Steadying the Breeze on The Gulf Coast

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In the last two decades, the cable system in Gulf Breeze, Fla., has changed hands so many times that local regulators are hard-pressed to account for the all the past caretakers.

“Frankly, I lost track,” Mayor Lane Gilchrist said.

Mediacom Communications Corp. bought the system from Cablevision Systems Corp. in 1998, bringing stability — and a much-needed upgrade — to this suburb of Pensacola in the Florida panhandle.

“We used to be served by a series of cascading amplifiers. Now I think we have a home-run [fiber link] all the way to City Hall,” Gilchrist said.

Over five years, Mediacom has rebuilt, interconnected and upgraded its plant. A fiber run now extends nearly from Tallahassee, Fla., to New Orleans, said Jim Carey, the region’s senior vice president of field operations.

The Gulf Breeze rebuild cost $35 million to $40 million, part of a $170-million regional upgrade.

Mediacom built a 52,000-square-foot regional call center just outside the city of Gulf Breeze, serving the region. All of its local technical staffers are situated in the new building.

Since the area is within a hurricane zone, the structure has been built to withstand winds at 140 miles per hour. It’s also virtually redundant: Should there be a crisis in Gulf Stream, all calls are seamlessly routed to a sister center in Georgia, Carey said.

<p>Southern Comfort</p><p>Mediacom’s Gulf Breeze region at a glance:</p>

Homes passed:

94,000

Basic customers:

60,000

Digital customers:

18,000

High-speed Internet customers:

17,000

Infrastructure improvements have positioned the Gulf Breeze system to exploit the region’s greatest asset. This part of the Pensacola coast has some of the remaining “affordably priced” beachfront property in Florida (relatively speaking).

The beach lifestyle makes it easier to attract managers, and to attract and keep front-line employees.

Importantly, appealingly priced property also means new development. Last year, the system’s basic-subscriber rolls grew by 2%.

“Our best natural resource is new-home construction. You can use it, or you lose it,” regional vice president Mike Smith said.

“Our goal is to be the first [video provider] into every development,” he added. “There’s so much upscale development going on that it’s a full-time job to keep track of it all. We’re part of every association we can be.”

The local system has full-service sales representatives who can call at the door and do the install. They handle 90% of installations within new developments.

“We’re in the business of instant gratification,” Smith said.

Mediacom is thinking of developing a Web site just for local realtors, to help them forward leads that would be offered installation within an hour, Smith said. Where possible, realtors are also encouraged to add “This home powered by Mediacom” to for-sale signs.

Broadband availability is becoming front-of-mind for developers, who often pre-wire units for service. Thus, Mediacom approaches property managers with bulk broadband contracts, including deals for digital video and Internet service.

While the bulk discounts are attractive to property managers, they can be challenging for Mediacom, especially when units are used as rentals. About 70% of new units are used as vacation homes.

Residents expect the same level of broadband availability as in their primary residence, but are sometimes the source of trouble calls when services in their second homes operate differently than they do at home.

With the improved infrastructure, Gulf Breeze is offering video on demand, HDTV, digital video recorders and, soon, voice services over the cable platform, executives said.

At City Hall, the improvements don’t always mean regulators are wholly pleased.

Yes, Gilchrist noted, the new call center hires local people, and he can’t remember a time in the last year the council received a service complaint. And Mediacom is better about communicating price and service changes with local officials.

But the mayor grumbles about steady rate hikes and questions whether the public really wants all these bells and whistles. He’s a digital subscriber and service for two TVs is “really expensive” he complained.

Still, it doesn’t sound like he’ll be downgrading anytime soon: His wife recently discovered BBC America, said Gilchrist, and she’s hooked.

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