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Selectmen review MetroCast franchise agreement

July 20, 2011
Gilford's Board of Selectmen held a public hearing Wednesday, July 13, during their regular meeting to discuss the town cable television franchise renewal, set to expire in 2013.

Chairman John O'Brien pointed out at the start of the hearing that the board could not negotiate rates and programming changes with their provider, MetroCast Cablevision.

"That is what most people are concerned about," stated O'Brien, explaining that they were prohibited by federal law from broaching the subject of rates.

The major concerns brought up by the board were improving the quality of public access channels 24 through 26 and getting cable to homes currently without service.

"We provide a map of what is serviced by MetroCast," said Laura Campbell, a MetroCast representative. "We service areas with at least 10 homes per mile. Anything under that is not typically covered."

According to Campbell, MetroCast services 3,800 customers in the area. They have serviced an additional 728 homes since they received the franchise in 2001.

Katherine Dormody, Gilford Public Library Director, voiced a concern about the library's media service.

"The library has cable access for Internet, not TV," said Dormody. "The old library had a fiber-optic cable for direct access to the town network."

To this, Campbell replied that MetroCast could provide the needed service to the library; though she did clarify that this agreement was specific to cable television access, and excluded phone and Internet service.

"One complaint of cable in general is of a monopoly," stated Vice Chairman Gus Benavides, citing the few service options for customers in some areas.

"We are seeing competition from Fairpoint because of the triple play [package]," said Campbell.

She also pointed out additional competitors, such as Dish Network and Comcast. According to Campbell, the main reason customers are lured to other providers has less to do with service quality, and more to do with lower prices on bundle packages, including phone and Internet services with their cable subscription.

Campbell defended the prices MetroCast sets as necessary for the company to function.

"We are not exactly rolling in the money," said Campbell. "The cost to carry channels, programming is astronomical. By far, programming rates are through the roof."

According to Campbell, an "a-la-carte" system, where customers could chose which specific channels they would like to subscribe to, would be a cheaper system; however, the FCC has regulations against this type of system. Instead, there is a tiered system under which the customer must purchase a group of channels; basic tier, extended basic tier, and so on.

"If you want 'this' channel, you must carry 'these' channels," said Campbell, explaining that the system can also burden the cable provider; however, media companies or programmers prefer the system because there are more guaranteed viewers. Programmers, she explained, figure that if customers have access to a channel in a tier that they might not ordinarily watch, they may watch it simply because they are already paying for it.

According to Campbell, the FCC regulations against an a-la-carte system were constructed by programmers and broadcasters to apparently sell less popular channels with popular content; however, Campbell added, "there is a lot of politics involved."

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