New Paltz Village and town officials are, in a show of unity, trying to ensure that the cable franchise agreements with both municipalities are as close to identical as can be. That’s intended to prevent “playing one against the other,” according to Anton Stewart, who has overseen this coordinated approach. Stewart spoke to members of the town council at their August 18 meeting. Presenting a united front will be especially important because local leaders are looking to nail down a guarantee for the elusive senior discount, among other changes.
Cable franchise agreements are needed in order for those cables to be maintained in public rights-of-way, but Stewart said that they are not exclusive. “Anyone can get one of these, but no one wants to.” The only franchise agreements in New Paltz are in favor of Spectrum, which is why Spectrum is the only option for cable television and internet service. The village franchise agreement has expired, and the town one will run out in March. Both are renewed for ten years at a time.
Stewart chairs the Public Access Committee, the members of which are working on these agreements as an extension of their oversight of the local public access channel. Cable subscribers in New Paltz can tune in to watch local government meetings, as well as programs submitted by residents or recorded using equipment at the community center. Many, but not all, of the changes being sought are intended to bolster public access television in New Paltz.
As it stands now, meetings and other video content that’s recorded in high definition must be uploaded through an analog modulator that was state-of-the-art when Tom Nyquist was mayor. While this antiquated hardware is provided, parts to repair these modulators are hard to find and according to Supervisor Neil Bettez, it takes “days or weeks” to get a broken one replaced because Spectrum employees have to “find them on ebay.” At its best, the process results in a significant downgrade in video quality.
Stewart said that it would only cost about $300 to address this issue, and that the offer has been made to use public access funds to pay for it. However, Spectrum officials countered with what Stewart called a “hokey solution” for which taxpayers would be charged $7,500, plus $600 a month in ongoing maintenance. Instead, in this draft agreement is language requiring that the system be modernized in existing broadcast centers (town and village halls, the community center and the middle and high schools). The new firehouse and justice center on North Putt Corners Road would also be added to that list of broadcast locations, as these are both emergency operations centers. All government buildings in the community would be provided with “basic internet,” a term newly defined, should these agreements be adopted in present form.
Offering only ancient technology is one of the ways that public access is pushed to the margins because it’s not a source of revenue, according to Stewart. Another tactic, which hasn’t been attempted in New Paltz yet, would be to reassign public access from Channel 23 to another number — likely in the hundreds — that would make it extremely hard to find at all. There’s several proposed measures that could mitigate that. One is a clause that would require 90 days’ written notice, plus an opportunity for public input, before relegating the New Paltz channel to “digital Siberia.” Committee members are also calling for the public access channel to be included in both basic cable and add-on streaming services, and want to see New Paltz Public Access Channel programming listed in the channel guide.
It’s the senior discount that local officials hear about most when residents complain about Spectrum. Senior citizens are supposed to get a month free after paying for eleven months in a row on time. That benefit has proven hard to obtain, in part because call center employees are not aware it exists. The language in prior agreements may have also limited the discount to only a very narrow band of residents. The push here is to make sure that the credit is applied automatically and regularly for anyone who has ever received it, since no one who’s eligible is getting any younger. Disabled residents would also be eligible, under the draft language. The issues with customer service representatives being unfamiliar with the nuances in New Paltz would be addressed by having a single point of contact for community residents, with employees trained in those particulars. This could take the form of a dedicated phone number, or perhaps the Spectrum store uptown would be that contact point.
Other changes could prove more costly for the Spectrum bottom line, but Stewart is confident it won’t result in the company being bankrupted. These include folding the revenue for cable internet into the agreement, generating a larger franchise fee, and providing detailed records to back up the amounts being paid. There is an argument that any increase to the franchise fee would be passed on to customers, but Stewart claims to have reviewed evidence that the franchise fee is already being collected from New Paltz residents on the internet portion of their bills — even though it’s not itemized on those bills. Speaking about records, Bettez said that town auditors have shown that Spectrum franchise payments were short by about $11,000 last year; more detailed records could show that the gap is even larger.
The reliability of the connection, or lack thereof, will also have consequences for Spectrum shareholders. Outages of six hours or longer — assuming the customer didn’t cause it — would result in a credit in this draft. That’s another New Paltz-specific benefit that anyone working in the single point of contact would have to be familiar with, per the language in this version. All communications with New Paltz subscribers would have to prominently include instructions on how to reach the employees trained in these local issues.
A cost of a different sort would be paid by requiring that a company official show up in New Paltz to hear concerns twice a year, and that those public meetings be recorded and broadcast at company expense.
There’s a lot being asked here, but this is simply part of a negotiation that was begun by Spectrum officials sending a boilerplate agreement for ratification. Stewart expects that most of these changes will be met with resistance. Once town council and village board members all agree and this counter-offer is submitted, the depth of that resistance will be more clearly appreciated.