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Missoula County Public School Network Coordinator, Maurice Austin inspects the music classroom inside Porter Middle School where WiFi will be installed.

Missoula County Public Schools could see the cost of cable television service increase when Charter Communications goes digital this week.

The cable and Internet service provider announced last month it was replacing outdated analog channels with new digital service. To receive the new service, customers must install a digital set-top box for each television that doesn’t currently have one.

That could be problematic for Missoula County Public Schools, which has dozens of cable-wired televisions placed in classrooms throughout the district.

“Imagine our high schools where we have wired one central cable connection to televisions in other locations,” said Hatton Littman, spokeswoman for MCPS. “It’s no longer going to work, and because of the digital conversion, the cost to continue delivering cable service to each classroom the way we are now is significant.”

Littman placed the cost of renting digital boxes for each cable-wired television at between $60,000 and $100,000 a year. She said the district isn’t prepared to cover the expense.

“They (Charter) have given indication they’d provide one box per school for free,” Littman said. “The problem is that you can’t split that one box off into every classroom. If we could do it, they’d all have to watch the same thing.”

The city’s contract with Charter – found in City Ordinance 3237 – requires the provider to offer free cable to public institutions. That includes City Hall, the police and fire stations, the Missoula County Courthouse and MCPS, among others.

The question is whether MCPS counts as a single customer. The Missoula Public Library, St. Patrick Hospital, the Missoula City-County Health Department and Missoula College are also listed under the city’s cable television contract.

“If you say City Hall is one customer and can have one box without paying more, it’s not going to work,” said Ginny Merriam. “It’s very difficult, but it’s still very much a discussion in progress.”

The city said it’s still negotiating with Charter, and Brian Anderson, director of regional communications for Charter, said the company would work as best it could to resolve the school district’s dilemma.

However, he said, Charter gave the district notice of the conversion four months ago.

“If the district has gone in on its own and run additional cable lines throughout their buildings or rooms, they’d need to work with us to obtain equipment to get those boxes,” Anderson said, adding that the service would still be free.

“This is not new to them,” he added. “We started outreach to them four months before the cutover. It’s not a surprise to anyone. They knew this was coming. We’ll work with them as best we can.”

Given the district’s outdated wiring, Littman said, it may not be possible to rework the wiring or achieve the same programming via live-streaming over the Internet.

“Our tech infrastructure is not set up to handle that kind of live-streaming content,” Littman said.

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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