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Public-access TV up for debate in Hooksett

HOOKSETT - Another proposal to create a community cable TV channel for Hooksett is being presented to the Hooksett Town Council at their next meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 28. Members of a committee to negotiate a new cable TV franchise agreement with Comcast are presenting options to use some or all of the $120,000 or so in annual franchise fee payments collected by Comcast and paid to the town for such a channel.

Many New Hampshire communities operate their own community access cable TV channels that feature programs like town and school board meetings, community events, and programs created by local residents. Peter Farwell, along with David Pearl, serves on the franchise committee and has been trying to start a channel for years. Farwell said Hooksett is one of only a few communities in the state without community access TV.

'Alton Bay, Northwood - all these people can watch their school board meetings, their planning board meetings. We are one of the very few without that access.'

Funding for community access channels comes from local cable subscribers themselves. A look at your monthly Comcast bill shows a 3 percent franchise fee on the basic cable charge. But since Hooksett does not have such a channel, that money goes to the town's general operating fund, and has done so for years. Residents without cable, who get TV off the air or from satellite, do not pay this fee.

Towns must regularly grant cable providers a franchise to operate, and Hooksett is currently negotiating with Comcast for a new agreement. The current deal expires Dec. 15. Farwell said the town has the option of altering the 3 percent franchise fee.

'They could eliminate it, lower it, increase it or keep it the same,' said Farwell.

Eliminating the franchise fee would remove about $120,000 from the town's general fund. According to Town Administrater Dean Shankle Jr., replacing that money would equal about a $22 increase in yearly taxes on a home worth $250,000.

David Pearl owns Spotlight Video Productions in Hooksett and has been involved in producing Hooksett meeting videos online. He said a more stripped-down approach can save money.

For example, Hooksett would share Manchester's community cable channel 22. Hooksett would pay a fee to use their facilities and Hooksett programs would be brought to the Manchester studios to be transmitted. In Hooksett, Channel 22 would be split off and offer programming separate from what is seen in Manchester.

Shankle said Hooksett is looking at a complete communications plan.

'That includes everything we use to inform residents - mail, fliers, video streaming' he said.

In the next meeting, town councilors could consider forming a committee to develop a plan that could include a TV channel.

'They are looking for the committee to come up with a shopping list and what it will cost to implement,' said Farwell.

This committee would develop options on how to create and transmit programming, what equipment will be needed, whether a full or part-time administrator will be needed, what programs would be carried and what guidelines would the channel have for residents who wish to create their own programs.

If the Town Council approves a new community access channel for Hooksett, all or part of that franchise fee will go to fund the channel. But whatever the amount, it will lower town revenues by that much which and will have to be made up somehow, or if the franchise fee is increased cable bills would rise slightly.

The idea of a Hooksett community access cable TV channel has been proposed several times before. Three years ago, voters turned down a warrant article that would have started a channel. But earlier this year, the town has begun live streaming of local meetings. Those meetings can be seen on demand as well. The town entered into a $5,000 contract with Granicus, an Internet services provider, to provide the service.

According to Shankle these web streams have been viewed 1,570 times since March. Plans are underway to optimize these streams so they can be more easily viewed on tablets and phones with a data connection.

So if meetings are already available online, why create a cable TV channel? David Pearl puts it this way: 'If you are paying the franchise fee, and we use that money to put meetings on the Internet, you aren't getting them on TV but you are paying for it.'

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