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Cable franchise signals new things

POULSBO — What happens when Poulsbo residents flip on their television sets the next 10 years will be determined by the city council this month.

At its Sept. 10 meeting, the Poulsbo City Council is set to hold a public hearing on a new cable TV franchise agreement with Comcast that is awaiting council approval. The document, negotiated over the last 18 months, is a replacement for the city’s current 15-year cable franchise that expires this year.

Central Services Manager Dennis Bouffiou said he feels the proposed contract is a good deal for the city, Comcast and cable subscribers alike. Although the drafting process was a long one, Bouffiou credits the work of consultant Tom Duchen of River Oaks Communication in Colorado Springs, Colo. with helping the city along.

“There’s a lot of legal language in this that we wouldn’t have if we didn’t have a consultant who was versed in the FCC language,” he said. “Compared to the other contract, this is very advanced.”

The new 10-year agreement includes a number of provisions that city staff believe will be to the benefit of Poulsbo. First and foremost, the document will allow the city a greater ability to broadcast public meetings on Bremerton/Kitsap Access Television. The Poulsbo City Council’s Wednesday meetings are currently videotaped by three BKAT volunteers using rented equipment from BKAT and rebroadcast on channel 12 three times per week. If the council approves the new Comcast contract, Poulsbo will receive a $32,000 loan from Comcast to purchase its own video equipment that would be mounted in council chambers.

“Now it takes three people to broadcast the meetings and with this it will only take one and the council meetings could be broadcast live or any meeting held in council chambers could be broadcast live,” Bouffiou explained of the potential benefit. “There will be a switch in place to broadcast only to Poulsbo when it’s live then after that it’ll switch back to BKAT programming.”

Broadcasting meetings live would be the decision of the city council but the technology would be in place about six months after execution of the agreement.

The $32,000 loan for video equipment would be paid back by all cable subscribers in Poulsbo by a 65 cent Public Education in Government (PEG) fee on each month’s bill until the amount is repaid. Bouffiou said it is estimated that the $32,000 would be refunded in about two years. After the loan is repaid, the city council has the ability to set the PEG fee anywhere from no charge to $1.

“Some franchise agreements have (the PEG fee) locked in for the entire agreement,” Bouffiou said. “This gives the council flexibility to set it where they want it.”

Other provisions in the proposed contract include:

•A complimentary cable outlet to each city building and school in Poulsbo

•A 30 percent discount for low income seniors and disabled people for basic and expanded basic cable. Criteria is the same as for discounted water and sewer rates through the City of Poulsbo

•A $7,500 customer satisfaction survey or equipment upgrade loan in the sixth year of the contract, repayable at 50 cents per subscriber per month for eight months

Bouffiou added that Comcast is also moving toward cable upgrades in the Poulsbo area he thinks customers will be pleased with. For instance, High Definition Television (HDTV) is only offered for HBO and Showtime now, but plans are in place to add it for the Discovery Channel. Video on Demand will also be debuting sometime in 2004 and Comcast is considering adding phone service to its offerings. The cable company will also be building a new head end in Bremerton in 2004, which will allow more features to be added in the future.

“It’s frustrating to see what’s available in Seattle and we can’t get it but with the new head end it will come here faster,” Bouffiou commented.

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