NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 5, 2014

Selectmen sign new contract for cable channel

BY ANGELJEAN CHIARAMIDA
STAFF WRITER

---- — SEABROOK — The days of poor reception on the town’s cable channel are numbered, with upgrades coming in the not too distant future, now that selectmen have signed a new contract with Comcast.

Those who watch town meetings on their cable access channel can look forward to not only better quality sound and a crisper picture, but also watching meetings on their computers or tablets. There will also be a new channel just for local schools. The details have been hammered into the contract from Comcast. Town officials have been waiting for this renewal contract since 2009, when the last contract expired.

Complaints have been numerous over the years as the town’s television broadcast studio’s equipment aged. Buzzing sounds, poor picture quality and sometimes the complete failure of the system caused many problems. The equipment the town is using is so old, it relies on VHS-based technology.

The Cable Committee years ago came up with many of the recommendations that are included in the new legal document. According to selectmen, when they hired Bill Manzi to become the new town manager, he was told one of their priorities was for him to hold Comcast’s feet to the fire to get a contract that included the committee’s recommendations.

What makes a lot of the improvements possible is Comcast’s agreeing to raise the franchise fee from 1.5 percent to 3 percent, with all of that money going back to the town. The increase will mean about $54,000 a year to the town for technology uses, or more than $250,000 over the next five years.

Franchise fees are charged on monthly statements by Comcast, with part or all of the fee returned to the communities the company serves. In the past, a 1.5 percent franchise fee was charged, with all of the money going into the town’s scholarship fund for local students.

The immediate use of the additional money will go for new equipment for the town’s broadcast booth, according to Brian Murphy, the town’s technology chief. The equipment will allow the town to broadcast live to the channel with better results, and to stream to the Internet both live and prerecorded video of broadcasts of local meetings, such as the Board of Selectmen, Planning Board or Budget Committee.

Once the improvements are made, those wishing to watch over the Internet will be able to do so through a link on the town’s webpage (www.seabrooknh.org), Murphy said.

Also possible is a separate school cable access channel with the same capabilities, established in coordination with Seabrook School District officials. There are also plans in the future for a mobile unit that will be able to provide coverage of town events that are not held at Town Hall or the school.

It was a frustrating journey at times, selectmen and Manzi said, with Comcast causing many delays. After months of calls and negotiations, Manzi said, last week the changes the town wanted were added into a new contract.