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Town Ends Cablevision Talks

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For months the Southampton Town Board has discussed pursuing legal action against Cablevision, each time tabling the resolution. On Tuesday afternoon, however, the board unanimously agreed to hold off on litigation and instead file a formal complaint with the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) regarding their franchise agreement with the local cable provider.

“I think this accomplishes what we wanted . . . I am disappointed that Cablevision wasn’t more amenable [in offering] a second box without any restrictions. It may not be a lot of people but we want to take care of them,” said councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst during the town board meeting. In the fall of 2008, Cablevision offered free “converter boxes” to analog-only households, but the promotion ended in December. Southampton Town Attorney Dan Adams wondered why the company wouldn’t leave the offer open indefinitely, since only a fraction of their customer base is eligible for the free boxes. The boxes will be critical for allowing individuals who now rely on over the air service to receive public access channels once the system goes all digital.

“I realize that we have a generous offer, exclusive to the East End, for free boxes to analog subscribers. But that doesn’t go far enough in my view,” stated town supervisor Linda Kabot. She added that Plum TV and News Channel 12 are still available on analog format, but not the public, educational and government (PEG) channels.

“We don’t comment on how we determine which channels are migrated,” said Patrick MacElroy, the Director of Media Relations for Cablevision, on why some 45 channels are still provided on an analog service. He noted though that his company was looking to become an all-digital provider in the future, following in the footsteps of their competitors.

Previously, Joan Gilroy, the director of governmental affairs for the company, said her employer was willing to re-instate the free “converter box” offer for another 90-day period. As the board proceeds in filing a formal complaint, it appears unlikely that this offer will remain on the table.

MacElroy wouldn’t comment on this promotional offer directly but said: “For several months late last year, analog customers who wanted to continue to receive these channels were offered a free digital set top box for life. We had proposed an extension of this free box offer but were unable to come to an agreement with the Town.”

Southampton Town’s lengthy negotiations with Cablevision fit into a larger issue up for national debate.

“Does the cable company have the right to digitize access channels?” Gilroy declared at a previous meeting.

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission is weighing in on this question, said Adams. He added that the FCC closed a comment period in early April and received around 800 formal comments from municipalities across the country on the issue. Adams said he had yet to see the PSC make a verdict. As the PSC is a state organization, Adams said they would most likely defer to the FCC’s ruling. Although, he noted it is still unclear if the FCC in turn will defer this issue to the state.

Councilwoman Holst added that it would be unwise for the board to move forward with a lawsuit if the FCC ultimately votes in favor of allowing cable providers to switch public access channels from an analog format to a digital format.

“This has been dragged out for many months,” noted Councilwoman Sally Pope.

“Enough is enough. It’s time to file a formal complaint,” added Kabot. She went on to say that filing the report would “cost nothing except the postage,” which the board commented had gone up to 44 cents on Monday.