LACONIA — This week, Lakes Region Public Access is broadcasting the Children’s Auction, which last year raised more than a half-million dollars for charity.
It broadcasts hours of local coverage throughout the year, from the proceedings of local government to holiday parades and the work of independent producers.
Its mission is to produce content that fosters free speech, artistic expression and transparency in government.
That mission is now threatened by a proposed Federal Communications Commission rule that could cut off most of its funding, LRPA station manager Grace McNamara said Tuesday.
Cable television providers, such as Atlantic Broadband, are required to provide franchise fees to municipalities not to exceed 5 percent of gross revenue. The municipalities then provide that money to local public access stations.
Under the proposed rule, cable companies could deduct in-kind costs from these franchise fees.
These costs could include the value of local access channels, potentially zeroing out the franchise fees, public access advocates say.
If the rule passes and franchise fees paid to municipalities are greatly reduced, the concern is that financial support from towns and cities for public access stations will dry up.
Backers of the rule change say franchise fees result in artificially high prices for cable subscribers.
McNamara said LRPA has a budget of about $74,000, with $68,500 of that total coming from municipalities and $6,500 coming from Belknap County.
Without adequate funding, LRPA won't be able to operate, and that would be a loss to the Lakes Region, McNamara said.
“Right now, this week, our entire staff is at the Belknap Mall running the auction,” she said. “A lot of what we do has huge benefits to towns and the city of Laconia.
“There’s a big push to try to get people at the municipal and state level to become aware of the situation. Here at LRPA, we are going into our 20th year. It could be quite impactful if this time next year, we would not be able to be here.”
The city of Laconia this year signed an agreement with LRPA to provide $6.50 for each of Atlantic Broadband’s 4,178 subscribers in the area, or a total of $27,157, $5,075 less than the previous year. Other municipalities have separate agreements.
Franchise fees are already dropping because fewer people are subscribing to basic cable. More people are receiving content from online sources. LRPA itself streams content, making it available for people without cable television.
Laconia City Manager Scott Myers said he’s not sure how great an impact the new FCC rule wlll have.
“We budget funds for Lakes Region Public Access,” he said. “The money we get through grants and support from the franchise agreement is relatively small.”
Still, public access advocates are concerned.
The New Hampshire Coalition for Community Media put out an email encouraging people to write the FCC to oppose the rule change.
“On September 25, the FCC issued proposed rulemaking (Docket 05-311) that could have a catastrophic impact on Public, Educational and Governmental (PEG) cable access channels and media centers around the country,” it said. “If these rules pass, it could have a disastrous impact. We are calling on all supporters to take a moment to file comments with the FCC expressing your disapproval of their proposed actions.”
Andrew Walton, a spokesperson for Atlantic Broadband, said the company was reviewing the proposed rule.
“Atlantic Broadband (and previously MetroCast) has long supported the Laconia community through the payment of franchise fees in addition to the support we contribute each year toward Public, Educational and Governmental access (PEG) channels,” he said.
“The FCC’s proposed rulemaking would define ‘cable-related, in-kind contributions’ – which potentially would include PEG support — as being part of the franchise fees already being paid to franchise communities under the Cable Act.
“Atlantic Broadband currently is evaluating the proposed rulemaking and, at this early stage, it is not yet possible to determine what impact this might have on the support we currently provide.”
The FCC could take up the proposed rule change early next year.