LACONIA — The City Council moved forward Thursday with Comcast’s request to provide cable television service in Laconia, but Councilor Bruce Cheney said he has a significant objection.
Cheney, who formerly was director of the State Division of Emergency Services & Communications, said he wants local officials, such as the fire chief or police chief, to be able to break into normal programming to deliver instructions in case of a major emergency.
Comcast is seeking a franchise to go into competition with Atlantic Broadband, which currently is the city’s sole cable television provider. Atlantic Broadband does provide the ability for local officials to break into programming, although there is no record of that ever having been done.
Comcast officials say their system does not provide for this local capability, according to Kate Miller, an attorney retained by the city to assist with franchise negotiations. She said she would discuss the issue further with them.
“At this point, Comcast is saying the system that they will be putting out is similar to the systems they have been deploying across the country and those they have been building for the last probably 15 years or so, which doesn't accommodate that type of local override,” she said. “It's becoming probably less pressing than it was some number of years ago when people had fewer options in terms of getting real-time notifications of emergencies.
“Many communities, school districts, municipalities do notifications by cell phones, text messages, email now.”
On Thursday night, the council approved the first reading of a resolution authorizing City Manager Scott Myers to sign documents for Comcast to be given a competitive cable television franchise in Laconia.
The council also scheduled a Jan. 14 hearing on the proposal to gather public comment before making a final decision. Officials from Comcast and Atlantic Broadband are expected to be at the hearing.
Comcast’s request has received significant support on social media and in letters to the editor from people who say competition could bring better pricing and more programming options.
However, Cheney said he won’t support the Comcast franchise request unless it finds a way to provide the emergency communication provision he seeks.
Some percentage of citizens would likely seek information from their television in the event of an emergency, he said.
“If something goes wrong on the odd Tuesday at 10 o'clock at night, I want our officials to be able to announce to our citizens rather than waiting for the state to do it,” he said.
He said Comcast could quickly adjust its system to accommodate his request if it wanted to do so.
The City Council decision on whether to grant a franchise to Comcast will be based on its ability to show financial strength and technical ability, standards it should be able to meet. The council does not have purview over pricing or programming.
Miller said most New Hampshire communities are covered by a single cable television provider, but Comcast is interested in gaining new customers. The company has been awarded a franchise to go into competition with the existing cable provider in Rochester, New Hampshire.
The decision before the council concerns just cable television, but Comcast officials have said that if the company begins operating in the city, it would also offer high-speed Internet and telephone services.
Miller said Comcast could provide service locally even if the council did not approve the franchise.
“If if it's not approved by the council, they can impose it as a matter of right on the community, but I don't know Comcast would do that. What they may do is vote with their feet and go to another community.”
Comcast is the nation’s largest cable company. Atlantic Broadband is No. 9.