Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

City Council: Post Blizzard

16. December 2007 • Juliew
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Monday, December 17 at 7:00 pm.
Ann Arbor City HallCity Council Agenda

Highlights:

  • Public hearing on Housing and Human Services needs to identify housing and human service needs and establish funding priorities to address these needs for FY 09.
  • Ordinance to repeal Chapter 14 (Purchasing, Contracting and Selling Procedure) of Title I of the Code of the City of Ann Arbor and replace it with a new Chapter 14 (Purchasing, Contracting and Selling Procedure) of Title I of the Code of the City of Ann Arbor.
  • An ordinance to rezone 202 South Division Street to a PUD. This is the proposed “Ann Arbor Hotel” across from the McKinley Building.
  • Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown (A2D2) implementation update.


  1. The jungle drums are saying there will also be a resolution opposing Comcast’s decision to require people to have digital converters to receive Community Television Network programming effective January 15.


       —David Cahill    Dec. 17 '07 - 02:33PM    #
  2. Unfortunately, that decision was allowed by state legislation, not Council action. All Council can do is protest. So, call your State Rep. and ask that it be overturned – or Council broadcasts will be in the 900s range of the TV channels. (Both Liz Brater and Pam Byrnes voted against it. Kolb voted for it, but he is gone.)


       —Leah Gunn    Dec. 17 '07 - 07:58PM    #
  3. Re: local cable channels

    Tom Partridge weighed in last night during Public Commentary at City Council wielding same fairly harsh language concerning Comcast (I think I remember ‘dictators’ or some variant), and given that Ron Suarez was the only person in the room who mentioned that in early 2009 everything is going digital anyway (and that the national issue transcending our local cable access channels is, Who gets control of the extra room in the broadcast spectrum?), I figured I’d give Comcast a call this morning.

    Before calling, my understanding was that (1) Early 2009 everything goes digital so at that point you need a digital television or a converter anyway no matter what. (2) Comcast decided to move local cable access to digital-only service now instead of a year from now. (3) Comcast is mitigating the potential harm by providing free digital converters for the relevant time period.

    Otherwise put, before calling, I subscribed to the notion that it’s not complex, it’s COM-FREAKING-TASTIC!!!!

    And speaking of subscribing, in round numbers, here’s what I’m currently paying to Comcast per month:

    $12 Limited Basic Cable TV
    $42 internet access

    And a bit of additional background, I recently acquired a new digital TV from Big George’s (15” screen, to which the sales guy says, Are you American? And do you order a small steak? Which is one reason I like Big George’s … but I digress.)

    So I’m thinking, Okay, I got my digital TV, I’m ready for 2009, and I’m ready for the switch of CTN channels 16-19 to the 900 digital spectrum.

    Phone Call to Comcast:

    I have to say that the customer service rep for Comcast was a model of what that job is supposed to be. Information presented clearly, helpfully, and not like some kind of script-reading automaton.

    The information itself, though, did not leave me feeling Comcastic. Here’s why. In order to get CTN channels after they go digital, that $12 limited basic cable I currently pay is not going to do the trick, even with my new digital TV from Big George’s. What I’m going to need instead is a Digital Starter Package, which is $52.98 a month.

    So what if, for the next year, I just go and pick up one of these free digital converters from any Comcast payment center, and save that extra $40 a month for the next year at least? Guess what. I can’t do that, because the free converters, ARE NOT FREE TO LIMITED BASIC CABLE SUBSCRIBERS like me. They are only free to Preferred Basic subscribers, which costs $54.95 per month.

    So my conclusion is that Tom Partridge is right. His choice of words is only off by the final ‘tator’.

    In the short term, I’m writing Comcast to suggest is that they continue to offer something like their Limited Basic Cable, but for digital service.

    In the longer term, I think that it’s a topic that the community might start thinking about in terms of the broader national picture and what we can accomplish locally to ensure that the goals of CTN are met, independently of what happens nationally. Suarez seemed to be suggesting something along the lines of global access to the internet. One of the Public Commentary speakers mentioned digital antennas. Based on her comments at the table, Joan Lowenstein has at least some familiarity with the general legal issues surrounding community access television. So it would seem to me that it might be possible for Ann Arbor as a community to bootstrap a local solution to meet the goals of CTN.


       —HD    Dec. 18 '07 - 05:53PM    #
  4. Thanks HD for the cable information. There was a lot of confusion/anger on the part of Council and the City staff about Comcast’s role in this. I think someone also mentioned that you can get free installation of your free digital box, as long as you do it before December 31. No one mentioned anything about having to have a certain level of service.

    Another interesting item last night was the “resolution to Reject the 2007 Local Officers’ Compensation Committee Salary for Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem, and Councilmembers.” Because of the awkward wording, it was hard to tell if the votes went as planned, but I think the Mayor got a raise, the Mayor Pro Tem did not, and I lost track of what happened with the Councilmembers. Greden made a very pointed statement that any councilmember who voted to not receive a raise should donate all their raise to charity and that Greden would be watching and asking for proof of that donation. There were a lot of undercurrents in the discussion, but basically the Council members all agreed that you only serve if you have other resources for insurance and income.


       —Juliew    Dec. 18 '07 - 06:50PM    #
  5. “... but basically the Council members all agreed that you only serve if you have other resources for insurance and income.”

    Juliew, I missed the meeting but would like to understand this. Are you saying that the council members are not insured by the city? Do they all have to get their own liability insurance policies? Or are you talking about some other kind of insurance?

    HD, yes thanks for the cable update. I have the basic package too and I cannot get into paying $660 per year for television where 10 minutes out of every thirty is a commercial.


       —abc    Dec. 18 '07 - 07:53PM    #
  6. Doesn’t the council decide whether Comcast is Ann Arbor’s cable provider? Can’t we vote them out of town? Or at least ask other providers to bid for our business?


       —Cooler Heads    Dec. 18 '07 - 08:08PM    #
  7. I think the details here are a little confused.

    First, I don’t think Ron Suarez is quite correct about everything going digital in 2009, or at least being required to go digital. My understanding is that the over-the-air broadcast channels are required to go digital to free that section of the EM spectrum but cable is not. It is probably correct to say that trend will be toward all digital.

    The understanding I had from my conversation with a Comcast operator is that I can get the PEG channels as a basic rate subscriber by using a converter. I was told that if I wanted to use a digital TV I needed the extra cost digital service. Electronically this doesn’t make much sense to me. If the digital signal is reaching the house, that is, it is not blocked by the box on the pole why can’t HD’s TV decode it? This raises another potential issue about whether the signal is encrypted. If it is it may no longer be possible to record City meetings.

    At the very least it seems Comcast should provide a greater time period and some overlap of service to sort these questions out.


       —G. Thompson    Dec. 18 '07 - 08:13PM    #
  8. Juiew,

    As I understood the outcome, Councilmembers got their $300 a year recommended ‘raise’, which Suarez calculated at ‘a latte a week’.

    abc,

    I assumed it was health insurance not any kind of liability insurance that was at issue. This came in the context of benefits and compensation for the mayor and councilmembers. Discussion surrounded to what extent the money they’re paid and benefits they’re offered adequately reflect the time, effort and sacrifice (e.g., time with school-age kids), required to do the job, and whether it results in attracting a diverse talent on Council.

    Re: G. Thompson’s question: “If the digital signal is reaching the house, that is, it is not blocked by the box on the pole why can’t HD’s TV decode it?”

    My understanding is that my $12 Limited Basic cable is not going to include a digital signal for PEG channels. So with or without a converter, with or without a digital TV, no digital PEG channels are going to be there for any electronic device to decode. To get any kind of digital signal to the house, I have to pay for either Preferred Basic or else Digital Startup, either of which would mean more than a latte a week more money.


       —HD    Dec. 18 '07 - 09:17PM    #
  9. Cooler heads asks if we can get another cable company to bid.

    Look. I know everyone wants to think of Comcast as the evil empire (heck, in Ann Arbor any company with over 10 employees is considered a faceless coporation chain planning to strip mine virgin forest) but do you for one second believe that Cox, Time Warner, Adelphia, Charter or anyone else is going to give us a better deal? Not a chance. You go to any city in America and no matter the cable provider you will pay approximately $55 for cable.


       —imjustsayin    Dec. 19 '07 - 04:06AM    #
  10. imjustsayin,

    If you go back to the top HD points out that today he is paying $144 a year. You casually say that “... no matter the cable provider you will pay approximately $55 for cable.” That is $660 per year. If we all have to upgrade our service, or rent a new box, (basically a wash) just to get the same service we enjoy today then we get hit with a 450% (plus) increase. It seems to me that because cable companies have to go digital they are using it as an excuse to give the public a big squeeze.


       —abc    Dec. 19 '07 - 04:21PM    #
  11. First, the cable companies do not have to go digital. That rule only applies to the over-the-air broadcasts. Going digital allows cable companies to transmit more channels.

    I called Comcast three times after HD’s post #8. The first two were the usual customer service from hell. “If you want to give us money press 1 . . . If you want to give us even more money press 2 . . For all other actions press 5 . . . If you want to make a call please hang up and try again”

    The third time I was able to talk with a real person. She assured me that I would still be able to receive the CTN channels under the limited basic service. She tried very hard to convince me to upgrade to a more expensive service but when I kept asking if the PEG channels would still be available under limited basic she repeated yes.

    I was told that I would need a converter box, free for the first year, even if I had a digital enabled TV. I was told that after the first year I would need the converter or a digital enabled TV. Basically this is possible but not logical. When I asked more detailed questions about QAM and encryption she could not answer so she did not detailed knowledge about Comcast’s cablecasts.

    There appears to be two conflicting pieces of information from Comcast. I tend to believe the PEG channels will still be part of the limited basic simply because I think it would be a political disaster to remove them. However I think Comcast is not inclined to make this convenient and would like the opportunity encourage or mislead customers to upgrade to a more expensive service.


       —G. Thompson    Dec. 19 '07 - 05:20PM    #
  12. Nice title, “Post blizzard”. =)


       —Ryan Munson    Dec. 19 '07 - 07:21PM    #
  13. Wow! All this information about the cable boxes and digital TV is very helpful. I also get basic cable and a high speed Internet line – I think I’ll just watch DVDs instead of subscribing to more TV, which is nothing but commercials anyway.

    For those of you who cannot live without seeing the Board of Commissioners, we do have streaming video over the Internet now.

    Happy Holidays to all.


       —Leah Gunn    Dec. 19 '07 - 09:38PM    #
  14. Is there working wifi in the council chambers?

    I couldn’t pick up a signal that worked (ie there was the usual busted 20/20 service).

    (This was at the planning commission meeting I went to re Lower Burns Park rezoning, which called out for live-blogging or live-wiki or some other kind of real time fact checking.)


       —Edward Vielmetti    Dec. 20 '07 - 04:55AM    #
  15. NO. There is no working WiFi in the Council Chambers. Sometimes it works, but not usually. Council members must connect to their networks via land lines.

    Sigh.


       —Sabra Briere    Dec. 20 '07 - 04:29PM    #
  16. Just FYI on the cable discussion:

    Ann Arbor is not in complete control of the choice of the local cable provider. Much of that is done at the state level, according to a conversation I had with the mayor a year or two back. The city is also on a lengthy contract with Comcast, so getting out of it would not be an easy task.

    However, in the course of the conversation, I mentioned to John that the city of Glasgow, Kentucky not only managed to organize their own cable service, but internet service/LAN AND local utilities (some of it powered by waste decomposition at the local dump and other renewable sources.) It’s a rather inspiring example which, of course, may be enabled by Kentucky’s status as a commonwealth, rather than state.

    I hadn’t visited their website since that time and they’ve reorganized so that my old link which once led to a more direct description of all that is no longer valid, but here’s their main page and you can probably find more detail with a little dedicated poking around:

    http://www.glasgow-ky.com/


       —Marc R,    Dec. 30 '07 - 06:48PM    #
  17. It seems this would be a good time for CTN to consider putting greater effort toward the internet. The council meetings are being posted to Google videos, often segments of other meetings are also posted. I would suggest that all of the meetings CTN now cablecasts should be posted.

    I don’t think this would require much additional work. All the meetings are now recorded, most are converted to a digital format and compressed. It might require additional processing, but surely this could be automated once the process is de-bugged. Up loading to Google or other servers could be scheduled as a batch process overnight.


       —G. Thompson    Dec. 31 '07 - 10:15PM    #
  18. Glenn, I couldn’t help noticing the passive voice in #17. Are you posting the Council meeting to Google videos, or is CTN doing the posting?


       —David Cahill    Jan. 1 '08 - 07:19PM    #
  19. I am not the person posting the entire council meetings. With my old computer and a slow DSL line it would be very time consuming for me to post a 3 hr meeting. I have posted a few short clips from some meetings. I do not know who is posting the meetings, but I would guess it is someone at CTN doing it informally.

    My main point is that webcasting is possible with very low cost equipment. Visit CrankyGeeks.com and look at one of their shows. I think a PC Mag article stated their studio equipment cost between $5k and $10k. (probably does not include the hosting computers)


       —G. Thompson    Jan. 1 '08 - 09:53PM    #
  20. I’m the one who has been posting the Council meetings to Google Video. In fact, I have been posting City Council Meetings, Work Sessions, Ann Arbor City Planning Commission Meetings and Historic District Commission Meetings since March. I believe every meeting of those bodies that was on TV since March (since February for the HDC) is now online (I think I might have missed one PC meeting during the summer and one of the HDC meetings got cut off-sorry about that).

    I am not the one who is posting small snippets of the videos-I’ve been recording the whole meetings, what Edward Vielmetti called long, long, unedited versions pulled off the air from CTN.

    I am not affiliated with CTN and I didn’t ask for their permission. I got a new computer last year that can record video and wanted to experiment. This is free and it’s easy, requiring a very small commitment of time.

    Most of the videos have attracted very few page views. The exceptions are those that Juliew has linked to here on Arbor Update. The most viewed meeting has been the Sep 24, 2007 City Council meeting which has been viewed more than 6000 times. A couple of others got more than a thousand page views but most of them have less than a hundred.

    I don’t think I will continue doing this, though, because I am losing interest and I don’t have a digital converter.


       —David F    Jan. 3 '08 - 06:01AM    #
  21. Wow! This is a great community service, David F! I’m surprised by the number of hits.


       —David Cahill    Jan. 3 '08 - 04:18PM    #
  22. “This is a great community service, David F!”

    Seconded. What would be required for someone to keep it going?


       —Bruce Fields    Jan. 3 '08 - 07:15PM    #
  23. “This is a great community service, David F!”

    Thirded!

    David, would you be willing to post them on AU whenever they are up? Or let me know? I forget to always check for them and the Google notification stopped after one time. That would help more people know they are out there.


       —Juliew    Jan. 3 '08 - 07:24PM    #
  24. To keep it going the way I have been doing it one would need the ability to record 4 hour blocks of TV from the new CTN channel plus some way of uploading the resulting 1+ gigabyte size file.

    I just uploaded two meetings from last month today.

    The December 17 City Council meeting features the latte a week quote from Ron Suarez which the Ann Arbor News editorialized on and which he later retracted (the council’s raise is actually two lattes a week according to his blog.)

    The December 18 Planning Commission meeting includes the Lower Burns Park rezoning discussion.

    (To Juliew and others, you might take a look at my links to the latte quote and the Lower Burns Park agenda item, along with this how-to from Google’s video blog. Google makes it possible to link to a specific point in a video.)


       —David F    Jan. 4 '08 - 06:22AM    #
  25. Capture and storage is not a major problem since there are numerous tuner/capture cards and a 500 gigabyte hard drive is now only slightly over $100. The present process should continue to work with a converter box. However I could not obtain enough information from Comcast to verify this. Image quality may suffer. It is not very logical to start with an analog signal at CTN, digitize it for cable transmission, then convert back to analog only to re-digitize in the computer.

    Uploading is the problem. The files are large and require a long time on a residential DSL line. They may exceed the file transfer amount allowed by the DSL provider. Depending on the software used in the encoding there may technically be some legal problems based on the volume encoded.

    A year or two ago a local group approached CTN and offered to digitize and post meetings for a very small fee. The fee was not designed to make a profit, but rather to keep equipment up to date, get access to a high speed line, and buy any necessary commercial licenses that might be required. There did not seem to be any interest from CTN, and shortly afterwards the City Council meetings started appearing on Google.


       —G. Thompson    Jan. 4 '08 - 08:15PM    #
  26. Does this mean I would have to now PAY MORE MONEY to see the Glenn Thompson show on CTN?? Ugh, the inhumanity!!


       —fuzzbollah    Jan. 8 '08 - 01:56AM    #
  27. A Macomb County judge has, at least temporarily, blocked Comcast’s attempt to switch PEG channels to the 900 range.

    I can’t tell who brought what action in Macomb County from the story under the link. The judicial ruling seems to affect all of Comcast’s operations, so it’s likely a moot point, but I wonder why the same action could not have been brought in Washtenaw County? Anybody have some insight here? What did the Macomb-ians know that we didn’t?


       —HD    Jan. 15 '08 - 03:18PM    #
  28. It has also been blocked by a U.S. District judge in Detroit, (see today’s Freep) so that covers the whole state.


       —Leah Gunn    Jan. 15 '08 - 03:56PM    #