2017-06-15 / Front Page

Saco officials hope to include public access in cable contract

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

SACO – The Saco Cable Advisory Committee held its first of several meetings ahead of the city’s contract negotiations with Spectrum, formerly Time Warner Cable. The city of Saco will sign a 10-year contract with Spectrum in September and the committee will identify the needs of the city and make recommendations based on past negotiations with cable companies in Saco and other municipalities in Maine.

Saco City Information Technology Director Ryan Pinheiro said he plans to ask for as much as possible. The city has one public education channel that the government occasionally uses. Pinheiro said the committee will pursue three channels, one each for education, government and public access. He said once Thornton Academy and Saco schools identify their needed equipment, those costs can be included in the contract as well. Pinheiro said he hopes Spectrum will pay for equipment such as cameras and microphones that Saco business owners and nonprofits could rent through Saco Parks and Recreation Department.

Pinheiro sent a survey to Saco residents in the city’s monthly newsletter to get a sense of people’s opinion of their cable services. The response was overwhelmingly negative, with 80 percent of the 223 respondents saying they did not feel their current cable service was an adequate value for their money. Pinheiro said there is a lot of work behind the scenes people may not be aware of and recognizes he can do a better job educating the public.

“People think we’re selling Saco to Spectrum,” Pinheiro said. “That’s not the case. It’s more than likely Comcast doesn’t see it valuable for them to have a second operation in Saco.”

Tony Vigue, who has worked in cable franchising since the 1980s, said there used to be 21 telecommunication companies in Maine 30 years ago. He said today there are only three that control the market. Vigue said because of the consolidation larger companies swallowed smaller ones and cable rates have increased since 1997.

“(The cable companies) agree to stay out of each other’s territory,” Vigue said. “They only do overbuild in big metropolitan areas.”

Vigue said the committee plans to conduct a community wide needs assessment and wants to invite the public, schools and nonprofits to offer recommendations. He said while cable TV will change in the next 10 to 15 years, there is a need for it in the community.

“To towns where schools don’t do TV I say, ‘Imagine if a business in town had a 24/7 channel, wouldn’t you like to have that?’” Vigue said. “Come budget time people understand what you’ve been doing all year. It’s worth the investment.”

Vigue said the negotiation process between towns and cable companies has occurred many times throughout the country. He said the community has to have an interest in a good cable franchise going forward. Vigue said as part of the negotiations the city can charge Spectrum a franchise fee, because the cable company is making a profit from public space such as streets and sidewalks. He said Saco receives 5 percent of gross revenue, which is unlikely to change. Vigue said that amount of money doesn’t compare to what Spectrum will collect.

“(Spectrum) doesn’t come in, set up shop and turn over money in the community,” Vigue said. “Once the plant is installed they kick back and collect. Millions of dollars leave this community every year and (it) doesn’t come back.”

Vigue said the city of South Portland puts half the funding from franchise fees in the general fund and half elsewhere.

Saco resident Dave Pittman said Biddeford has its franchise fee funding in a separate account, but Saco puts all of its in the general fund. Pittman said he would like the situation in Saco to remain the same.

“My personal feeling is I would like to keep the franchise fee in the general fund,” Pittman said. “If we take it out, what’s that going to do to our tax base?”

Vigue said it will be important to secure a franchise because he doesn’t expect the federal government to uphold them in another 15 years. He said the town can submit an equipment list that the cable provider is obligated to pay in exchange for the use of public rights of way. He said the federal courts have upheld a decision ruling saying only towns can determine their needs.

“If we properly document needs (the cable company) has nowhere to go,” Vigue said.

Kris Stryker of the Saco Schools information technology department said he would like new equipment, as well as another remote broadcast location depending on where the new school is built.

Jeff Christenbury, a Thornton Academy representative, said he needs new hardware and software to put files on its channel. He said the audio and video on the receiving end could be improved as well. Christenbury said city council meetings are the only municipal meeting broadcast live because uploading it is a several hour process because of technology that dates back to 2000.

“The practicality of free channels is a problem,” Christenbury said. “It will take about $200,000 a year to run 24/7. Right now we get $7,500.”

Christenbury said because of the international influence at Thornton Academy he wants to invest more in live streaming. He said 5,600 TV subscribers doesn’t compare to 10,000 views on Facebook. Christenbury said he can’t speak for Thornton Academy but at the moment they are not interested in operating an open studio for the public.

Saco Parks and Recreation Director Joe Hirsch said he wants his department to be a public access point. He said additional parking would be needed but the public channel would also be a bonus for its weeklong theater programs.

Pinheiro said the committee plans to meet again 3 p.m. Wednesday, June 21 to continue discussion of contract negotiation.

Vigue said because cable isn’t considered a necessity like phone and power there are fewer regulations. He said contract negotiations are the only chance people get to have a say. Vigue said public access channels are important for people who are unable to attend meetings in person.

“I believe in free and open government,” Vigue said. “Televise all the meetings. Put everything out in the open.”

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