LACONIA — The City Council has delayed a vote to approve a competitive cable TV franchise after Councilor Bruce Cheney expressed concern that the proposed agreement with Comcast doesn’t include a local emergency notification option.
Cheney, who retired as the city’s chief of police and went on to found the state’s emergency 911 system, said Atlantic Broadband — a current franchise holder in the city — provides the capability to allow local officials to break into normal programming in the event of an emergency to deliver instructions.
On Monday, the council agreed to postpone the vote until their Jan. 28 meeting to give Comcast time to propose a suitable substitute. Federal regulations require competitive franchise agreements to have overall parity, but allow for substitutions in the form of value-added adjustments.
Cheney voiced his concern that the city could find itself facing a lawsuit if Comcast was granted a franchise that did not require an emergency alert option that the current franchisee is already providing.
“Atlantic has to provide it and Comcast says they won’t provide it, — not that they can’t,” Cheney said.
Earlier in the meeting, under questioning from Cheney, Comcast representative Bryan Christiansen said the company does have several places in Massachusetts where it maintains an emergency override option but said they can’t “geofence” it, which is the technology for limiting the broadcast to a specific geographic area.
When the system was used to alert one community to a boil order for a local water system, Christiansen said, cable customers in 10 other communities mistakenly thought they were also affected by the order and were boiling their water unnecessarily.
“Our position is that it is something that has not worked well,” he said. Comcast broadcasts FEMA and State of N.H. emergency alerts that are mandated, but not local notifications, he told the council.
“I think the day of that kind of thing has passed,” said Councilor Bob Hamel, maintaining that half the city is served by DirecTV or Dish Network and would not receive local emergency alerts even if they were televised.
Earlier in the meeting, Christiansen said, Comcast would build a network in the city “that will be state-of-the art.”
In response to questions about value-added portions of the agreement that would see the city receive $96,000 over the 10-year life of the contract, Christiansen touted a program that offers internet access to any student eligible for free or reduced-fee lunch for $9.95 a month, the chance to purchase a laptop computer for $150 and free online training.
“We would bring that to the table along with a strong national partnership with the Boys and Girls Club,” he said.
Asked to estimate a timeline for Comcast service to be up and running in the city, company representative Tim Kelly said a franchise agreement in Rochester was approved in December 2017 and customer hookups began in July 2018.
Edward Merrill, general manager for Atlantic Broadband in Vermont and N.H., told the council the company now serves five communities where they compete with another franchise.
“Our focus is on our customers, not our competitors. I think you’re going to see our technologies are very similar,” he said.