Cable TV Franchise Woes, part three

In early October, the following was submitted to the Town of Merrimack’s Media Services unit with the intention that this memo would become some form of public information, pursuant to RSA 91a, the Right to Know Law.

For the exercise of privacy, the address is withheld for this post.  The memo outlines things that would benefit the intelligence of the consumer, and should’ve got people in the position of power to question Comcast. Read on

To:       The Town Of Merrimack

From: Steven Ayotte

Re:       Town of Merrimack Cable (TV) Franchise Agreement

Dated: October 4th, 2018

I am writing up a letter, following up with statements to answers I asked from a Public Hearing on September 27thfrom the Merrimack Town Council; that I also feel since the process is still on going, that I’d add some other sentiments in regards to the draft agreement that I omitted for time and subject manner. I am uncertain if written comments have officially expired at the time of this writing on the first few days of October. Some of the additional comments stemmed from same meeting; leading me to extend those concerns and an important question in regards to “service centers” (see below).

On the Cable TV Franchise Agreement

A reasonable concern for the future of the Cable TV Franchise agreement is the language of a “service center” and has this definition changed since the last approval? While the Londonderry facility was or is the service center, how is an “Xfinity Store” classified in any part of the Franchise Agreement? Would this satisfy the compliance to the agreement going forward? Are there different types of “Xfinity stores” that function as a service center, or one to solely sell products? Also does it differ from locations where people can send their bills if they do not elect to pay electronically? If there is no clarity, could these retail locations be a loophole to current or future franchise agreements to Merrimack or other communities?

 Also could the cable TV provider give the Town the ability to advertise the current locations of “service centers” so the customers are aware where to go; since it could be a tedious process of updating the locations in the formal agreement?

Listing various suggestions: if the Town has not already, have their own copy of the Cable TV franchise agreement on town property (the Media Services unit, and/or the Merrimack Library) because there is no Merrimack-based locations for Comcast, and should expect that Comcast may not take those ideas.

Adding on to my support the Town of Merrimack to consider the 3 current channels and the 4th HD channel: if it were to go to less channels, there could be a potential concern of infighting with the inter government agencies in town (the Merrimack School District, the Town Government, etc.) I would be interested to see Merrimack School District’s response to be part of this Franchise agreement in terms of what they would like, ether TV access or the E in PEG Access.

  • As I mentioned in the public hearing on September 27th, was that the audio was highly compressed, on some of the PEG channels. Since my comments, I can add that even online videos are very compressed.
  • If the headend and the workflows on the town side* needs to be upgraded, it should be stated explicitly during budget season, including for the sake of transparency in municipal government, the types of equipment, the cost, an outline of the equipment that needs to be purchased, the manufacturer, etc. as the citizens are aware what the town is doing to improve the PEG channels headend*.
  • I also suggest the Town to look into adding language that would best fit the Town of Merrimack that prevents confusion of referring to the PEG access’ headend* and the Cable TV Provider’s headend. Another item that appears ether omitted or not included is if town buildings receiving Cable TV directly from Comcast or is routed through the Town hall. Some communities have what is called an Institutional Network or INET. I suggest the Town and School District to look in if this process would be more efficient for distributing Basic Cable TV to these buildings routed from a place like Town Hall.

 

*Some communities refer this to the “municipal headend” to separate the reference cable TV services’ own headend that provides the commercial channels to the customers, hence the confusion by the department head on September 27th when asked by this writer.

 

  • Onto following up on the quality suggestion: is to ensure the time “bug” on the community bulletin board is synced ether on a well known Internet time server such as ntp.org; or point to a town server that provides the time. Also, at the end of every program that airs on any of the Merrimack TV community channel, it states the proceeding program doesn’t reflect the Cable TV Advisory Board, to this day, despite it being “disbanded” a few years back. One suggestion it to perhaps look if there is a need to remove that graphic, as that could be outdated information.
  • There had been some comments publicly to the Town Council about on screen programming guides, and unfortunately due to the technology barriers between the cable system and the Public Access, this probably won’t be done. Also there is no way to measuring viewers on PEG public access channels, as the only major media ratings agency, The Nielsen Company, only measures viewers to a threshold about 7,000 before they share it and you have to pay a heavy price, as well paying for “encoders” for the current way to measure multimedia, known as the Portable People Meter, a portable “decoder” for the measuring audience, so basically there is no funding for any community to afford this only method of measuring viewers.
  • A concern I have is I’ve noticed on the Community Access channel (Channel 22) that town employees featured on some programming (some feature staff from the Police and Fire departments.) I am not familiar of seeing this amount of “content” to be featured on what is a public access channel in comparison to other communities. While I believe there is good-faith on a fact that perhaps the producer is a town resident who isn’t working for the Town as an employer, the fact it’s not disclosed, is concerning from an editorial perspective. If town employees are featured on the Community channel, that processes are put into place to for instance, a running a disclosure that the programming that’s cablecasted are not reflective to the town government.
  • I strongly suggest the Town Council to review the current contract with Comcast in regards to Franchise Fees payment to the Town. I disagree it’s a “tax” in the figurative sense. While I understand the town has used nearly $250,000 out of nearly $400,000 for the use of property tax relief, this figure seems to me being too much for the use of the funds and clearly validates potential deficiencies of the quality of the PEG access channels. Comcast as well as other Cable TV providers have lobbied to Federal lawmakers to get rid of this regulation for the very same reason the Town Council (as well as other communities) have allowed. There was talk that the Media Services would provide information to the Town Manager and Council, a visual if the franchise fees were reduced further and it’s tax impact to the services they provide, however it wasn’t explained on the September 27th

In general, supporting Media Services should be treated in a similar way to the Parks and Recreation and the Public Works. There had been references to Bedford and their access channels and the funding. From my research, I’ve noticed there’s a difference in quality, and perhaps the Town take notes of what Bedford is doing, and see if the Media Services could improve. I noticed the department measures their success on data (based on their annual reports to the town), however I suggest quality over quantity would be a better outcome and perhaps enable more residents to come to the Media Services if they have not already. I think the use of about half the Cable TV franchise fees for the General Fund is a bit too much.

[Sidenote: When I was writing this for the Town, in my mind, I felt that Merrimack in some ways have better quality of services, in Londonderry for an example they are just starting to do parks in a very handicapped/half-hearted attempt in fashion. While Londonderry does not have a transfer station that is open year round, they instead pioneered with recycling on the curb in New Hampshire in 1988, however it has severely been regressed to a twice a month pickup for the reasons to keep the town side’s budget in check]

Supporting this department with an improved would also be a hedge against the ever so changing world of social media and an apparent self-destruction of the First Amendment as these U.S. based companies are imposing their own regulations. Users and content creators are ether loosing access to their platforms; or not getting “heard” through the noise of these platforms or YouTube or Facebook is choosing which “channel” should be the “influencer”. For content creators, these platforms are not neutral at all, and a handful of people are now deciding who is the winner and who would be the loser. Maybe it’s not people; it could be a handful of complex code known as algorithms. How’s this giving the consumer options on a content side in a digital world now? Supporting more funds to media services and flexibility to not “live in a box” budget wise could reduce concerns from other residents who have differing views of the public access channels.

Comments with regards to a Proposed “Franchise” of Internet Services

[Sidenote: This is the part where the public hearing was not the right venue to speak upon this, but there is an implied Hooollld on a minute, Think before you Act. This is where I try to explain TCP/IP in a very laymans terms ]

There are other concerns I had that I didn’t express to the Town Council for the purposes of time and respecting the audience, especially on technical nature of a subject like Internet services. This part of the comments is on Internet Service Providers, ISPs, the Information Technology (IT) mindset, and the “information pipeline” and not content.

I strongly caution the Town Council (or the Town of Merrimack or both) looking into the option doing their own type of franchising of an internet service provider (said conversations occurred on September 13th and public comment on September 27th). If any community that has done this, there are chances of high risk, and rewards will most likely be very slim and given the Title II status by the Federal Communications Commission, there will never be Federal protection for violators unlike Cable TV access.

The unfortunate situation is the current state of the “consumer” class. This group is not as savvy to the mass media industry or the technology behind it as in years past. Between the deregulation of the industry by the FCC beginning around 1985, and turning the mass media industry from basically a utility into a full casino (commercializing the broadcast industry, minimal regulation for cable, and very lenient relaxation of media ownership regulations), is the very same reason why cable TV rates have gone up and not leveled or decrease.

There had been concerns about the repeal of Net Neutrality. That was a law based on a reactive policy based on theory. In contrast to reality, if a customer was so serious of needing unrestricted access, if they know what kinds of questions to ask, to their ISP; the ISP could tell, meaning if a “consumer” is well aware of their heavy internet use, some ISPs could give a consumer a “business class” connection with a unrestricted, un-throttled, completely open access without any catches. However many consumers just cannot advocate for what they really want, and as result, it was easier to put a cookie-cuttered legislation, at the price of the ISP’s reliability, stability and security of allowing a free for all system.

The rules imposed by the FCC would turn the ISP’s industrial-grade type of network into a home type of network for the masses, with simple networks that would not work with the way the Internet is designed, to connect to other types of networks and services, worse with a lack of favoring critical packets* not websites or services or content. Net Neutrality blurred these “packets” and “content” and was assuming ISPs were controlling content, not packets.

*A “packet” is the way the Internet sends and receives data, in other types of networks are carried via binary code, or radio frequencies. Packets traditionally do not care how it gets to Point A or Point B as the Internet standards predate modern multimedia technologies that require them to be “real time” or risk “buffering” or “jittery” pictures or voices that “sound like they are underwater”. This is a type of technology known as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol better known in this industry as TCP/IP. TCP/IP or “the Internet” is a type of networking technology that for a consumer functions like a two way radio connection, there uploading (“transmit”) and downloading (“receive”) and unlike a traditional TV or radio, where a person can tune to a station by positioning their dial, the Internet needs to do a small “broadcast” to direct a user goes to stream or surf the general Web. This is a simplified example and a reminder that “streaming” and or “IPTV” services may be “TV” today but engineering wise is far from what it used to be from a quality and reliability standpoint.

A realistic example would be if the Merrimack Village District would allow a user to have their water in every faucet, and every shower, tub, outside faucets open at full blasts, all the time? Should they charge the customer more or less because, or restrict the access based? If they were to regulate this as a utility, Net Neutrality would counter act the very same reason to ensure fairness. In the example of municipal water; here’s a check and balance system (such as the infamous odd/even rules every summer and charging customers per units.) The “all packets are equal” mindset of Net Neutrality would cause situations such as if I am uploading a heavy file to the outside world, that means if someone wanted to watch a super uncompressed film on Netflix, would suffer to “buffering” because it would be “unfair” to slow the user whose uploading a large file into a cloud, while simulating TV service over the Internet should be treated exactly the same as someone uploading that large file. If you got confused reading the last sentence, then you should understand the negatives of Net Neutrality.

One last note: When I spoke on the public hearing on September 27th, I found it to be disappointing that only one other person than me spoke in favor or against the current proposed agreement. I hope my suggestions will educate the Town Council, the Franchising Authority, and the Town of Merrimack to making sure that the Franchise Agreement can be as “future-proof” as possible and understanding that “there is no such thing as free lunch” and “being careful what you wish for.

If the Town was to go forward with a “franchise” for Internet services, there is a greater risk to the consumer in terms of reliability, and given the Internet’s unregulated nature, would mean the Town would be on their own with any leverage with an ISP that could be providing TV-like services. ISPs use the IT approach of refusing to understand the engineering of traditional media, which often leads to the stability concerns I have explained.

If such a new type of agreement were to occur without very specific needs and service level agreements; then the consumer should be aware that the ISP may not be fit for a quality replacement to a Cable TV service if the norm will be lags, “jittery”, or video “buffering” because an ISP is not a Cable TV company, and the standards for cable TV is different for Internet, meaning the latter has a lower standard for quality.

Thank you in advance for including this into the comments in regards the process in the renewal to the Cable TV Franchise Agreement.

*

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *