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Southern Franklin towns seek to expand Comcast’s cable service

— Six years ago, the four southern Franklin County towns struck a deal with the local cable company, Comcast.

Comcast agreed to give the towns money in public education government grants to create a public access television station, while the towns agreed to allow the cable company to run its wires throughout the four towns — a decision that cut out competition and turned Comcast into a monopoly.

The agreement effectively created Frontier Community Access Television or FCAT-TV, the local public access station providing education and government news to cable subscribers from its small two-room office on Elm Street in South Deerfield.

The towns will once again enter into negotiations with Comcast within the next month.

Boards of Selectmen from Whately, Sunderland and Deerfield, which met for other reasons Monday, unofficially agreed to collaborate with Conway in negotiations a second time. The towns agreed to hire attorney William Solomon to lead the negotiations.

This time around the towns will not only negotiate for continued public access through FCAT, but could also argue for the expansion of service to schools and under-served wireless areas in towns.

These areas include the homes beyond Route 116 in Conway and stretch along the Sunderland-Leverett line. Right now, residents in these areas use satellite dishes or an antenna on their TV sets or simply go without cable television.

In 2006, with computers donated by Smith College and a volunteer board of directors, led by Chairwoman Joyce Palmer Fortune, FCAT was founded.

“At that time, we thought to form a nonprofit to produce an educational channel for all towns and support government channels,” said Palmer Fortune, who is also a Whately selectman.

The station is now managed by Doug Finn, the executive director, and Kevin Murphy, the outreach director. While Finn manages the station, keeps programs running and provides video training to the community, Murphy, a technology teacher at Frontier Regional School, manages the student internship program.

FCAT is a nonprofit run without government control or tax support. The four towns’ roles are only fiduciary.

The public access station derives its annual budget from Comcast revenues — according to the initial franchise agreement between the cable company and the four towns. According to Finn, Comcast has the right to use the streets and poles of the four towns for its cable wires. In exchange, Comcast returns a percentage of its profit back to the towns, which they can only use to fund a public access station.

The total FY 2013 budget of $113,986 is paid for proportionately by each town depending on the number of cable subscribers in each town. Finn said the budget pays for the facility, salaries, equipment repairs, electricity and Internet service.

With 1,750 subscribers, Deerfield puts the biggest share back into FCAT — a total of $46,975 per year. It also kicks in another $8,050 for FCAT to film its government meetings.

With 1,300 subscribers, Sunderland contributes $35,789. Whately has 525 cable subscribers. Whately’s portion of the budget is $14,234. Like Deerfield, it pays another $1,500 for FCAT to film its government meetings.

Conway has 335 subscribers. This year, Conway will contribute $7,436, the same as last year.

FCAT-TV grew out of the need to provide better information to the public. Before 2006, Whately selectboard meetings, for instance, were broadcast with character animation which had no audio or visual.

“It is a way to allow individuals to create video and speak their minds,” Finn said. “What FCAT offers is free speech and the ability to say what’s on your mind and put it on a TV channel. There is no limit to what can be said. It is pure, unimpaired freedom of speech. We’re not political, religious or faith orientated.” Before 2006, towns could only broadcast through Channel 15. Now, FCAT is capable of airing several channels through a digital video server for the towns, reaching 6,000 homes. The channels are 12, 15 and 23.

Channel 12 is the education station. Channel 23 is the community station. These two stations are available for all four towns.

Channel 15 serves as the government station. Channel 15 can carry different content for each town and uses different signals.

Conway is an outlier among the four towns. The smallest of the four, it signed on to the Comcast agreement just last year.

Unlike its three partners, Conway’s Board of Selectmen’s meetings and other government meetings are not recorded or broadcast. This is one hole, Finn said, FCAT is working to fill. The dilemma is Conway’s town officials hold their meetings in a small front room in the town office building, where there is little room for video equipment.

As next month’s round of talks begin, it may likely be the last.

“People are afraid this may be the last contract. TV is going away and moving toward (Web-based) programming,” Finn said. “I can see in eight to nine years that instead of a cable TV box, it could turn into an Apple TV. There are many potential models of media delivery. This is my opinion, but many people believe this is the way it is going.” The next step will be for the towns to hold public hearings and request feedback on the progress of FCAT.

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