Â By Marissa MaierÂ
Â Southampton Town and Cablevision appear to be at an impasse once again over the issue of the availability of local public access TV stations to certain residents. At the town board meeting held on Tuesday, April 28, neither party could agree on how to best accommodate analog customers as the company prepares to transition to “digital only” service.
Â After months of back and forth negotiations between the cable provider and the town, Cablevision representative Joan Gilroy said her employer was willing to supply free “cable boxes” to analog households for a 90-day period. The company offered a similar promotion to analog customers in the fall of 2008. Gilroy reported this deal would likely be off the table if the town pursues legal action against Cablevision. Since January, the town has floated the idea of filing a formal complaint with the state public service commission.
Â The discord between Cablevision and Southampton began after the company switched the public access channels 20 and 22 from analog to digital on September 15, 2008. Gilroy estimated that of the 24,000 East End subscribers roughly 10 percent still use analog televisions. After the switch, these customers could no longer access the public, educational and government programming found on these channels. In order to get these channels, customers needed a Cablevision converter box or a digital television.
Â “Purchasing a digital television is too expensive for [many customers],” Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot wrote to Gilroy on April 8. “Many are elderly; very often their only access to what is happening in local government is through Channel 22.”
Â Gilroy reiterated the company’s proposal to offer free converter boxes for a three month period, but town councilwoman Nancy Graboski said this would hardly mitigate the problem. Cablevision would only provide one free box per household, regardless of the number of televisions. If a home had a combination of digital and analog television sets, the residents wouldn’t be eligible for the promotion. Gilroy said Cablevision is exploring offering a second converter box for customers in extenuating circumstances.
Â The town previously tabled the issue eight separate times as the board seems divided on the appropriate next step.
Â “Are we putting off the inevitable?” asked councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst. “It seems to me this is where technology is moving today … I am concerned that by us stopping the negotiations process at this point [by taking legal action] we are in fact not helping Southampton residents and taking away their opportunity to get a free box.”
Â Southampton Town isn’t the only battleground where this issue is being fought. In Dearborn, Michigan a court issued a temporary restraining order against the cable operator Comcast pending a decision from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC).
Â “The FCC is actively reviewing this question — does the cable company have the right to digitize access channels?” said Gilroy.
Â Town attorney Dan Adams noted that it is unclear when the FCC will deliver an opinion. The board ultimately decided to table the issue once again and continue negotiations with Cablevision.
Â “This has gone on for almost a year … And I am feeling frustrated,” said councilwoman Sally Pope, though she opted to table the issue for the next town board meeting in two weeks.Â
May Give Housing Preference to VetsÂ
A discussion of giving priority to veterans for affordable hosing in the town was one of the lighter notes at the recent board meeting.
Â The town has long recognized the need to provide affordable housing for middle and lower-middle income residents. Southampton councilman Chris Nuzzi is hoping to extend the eligible pool of residents for this type of housing to include military veterans.
Â The Suffolk County Legislature recently adopted legislation which gives affordable housing preference to military veterans. Southampton Town is following suit and hopes to enact similar code amendments. The town, however, will give preference specifically to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are year round residents. In addition, the veterans must be income-eligible for the program. Those who qualify will be given priority before any open lottery is held for housing. The legislation also authorizes the use of Community Housing Opportunity Funds to make affordable housing properties accessible for disabled veterans. A public hearing on the code amendment is set for Tuesday, May 12. Â