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ASTM E21 chairman Bob Moss
Co-Operative TV

by Clare Coppa

Democracy took center stage during the presidential election this month, as it did throughout the operation of Cable Co-op of Palo Alto, Calif., a cutting-edge cable-TV service that offered its customers a democratic corporate structure and ended up making millions—for the public!

The idea of TV paying its viewers seems diametrically opposed, but according to ASTM member Bob Moss, greed took a back seat in the cable co-operative’s operations, and it was a great ride. A Palo Alto resident on Cable Co-op’s board of directors, Moss said they started with $600 and sold this year to AT&T for $70 million.

Moss was recruited by an old friend, Tom Passell, to join Stanford professors, a Yahoo exec, and others who won the bid for the city of Palo Alto’s cable service in 1985. “I was part of the group that prepared and submitted the proposal and won the franchise,” said Moss, a metallurgist and principal engineer for Space Systems/Loral, Palo Alto.

Webster’s defines a co-operative as “owned collectively by members who share in its benefits,” and Cable Co-op fit the description, making customers “owners” who voted on operations including the sale, elected the board, and viewed board meetings. A monthly fee of $35 brought 64 channels of basic service with arts, learning, sports, and movie channels that were chosen by ballot. Customers were even offered inexpensive air time and equipment to present their own shows.

“It was certainly unique,” Moss reflected. “You’re certainly not going to find this sort of thing anyplace else. The combination of basically a customer-run system and also the depth that people went into it, was very, very different.” Time after time, he said, the system worked. “I have had people tell me that they actually watch the cable cast of a board meeting and think to myself, ‘Why would you inflict this type of pain on yourself?’” he laughed, saying the meetings often lasted until 11 p.m.

Financed with bank loans, monthly customer charges, and a small group of investors, the Co-op served the Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton areas with a coaxial system built in the mid-80s by Pacific Bell and Heritage Communications, Iowa.

“Lots has changed in the past 15 years, both the legal status of cable systems and other providers, and the amount and level of competition,” he explained. “The biggest changes are technology, and the need for major investments to modernize the system, to upgrade, and be capable of offering new and more comprehensive services. As a co-operative we just could never raise the funds for rebuilding and upgrading the system, so we had to sell to TCI/AT&T. [TCI is AT&T’s subsidiary.] They have their own problems, but at least they do have the financial resources to rebuild the system.”

AT&T will install a $20 million fiber optic network that delivers super-fast TV or Internet. A $17 million cable upgrade for school and government sites includes the provision of video and computer equipment and installation of a local media facility. Moss said their MPAC public access station “won an award this year as the best local small-sized origination channel in the U.S.”

As well as clean sweeps, Moss has been occupied with clean rooms, developing ASTM E 2090, Standard Test Method for Size-Differentiated Counting of Particles and Fibers Released From Cleanroom Wipers Using Optical and Scanning Electron Microscopy, with Committee E21 on Space Simulation and Applications of Space Technology. His value of standardization was shared with Cable Co-op. “We were the only cable company in North America to be ISO-9000 certified,” he said.

“This is an award-winning operation,” he concluded. Although AT&T has assumed the franchise, a 15-member Cable Co-op board, including Moss, will monitor the contractual benefits of the sale. True to their democratic ideals, after various bills are paid the board will distribute about $200 to each of its 29,000 cable-TV customers.

Copyright 2000, ASTM