The audiences of city council, county commissioner and school board meetings in Union and Baker counties may start jumping significantly a year from now.

It is not that city councils, county commissioner and school boards are expected to be addressing an increasing number of controversial issues. The reason is a new public access-like channel the Blue Mountain Translator District, which provides over-the-air television signals for Union and Baker counties, will soon be providing.

“Our goal is to launch the channel in the fall of 2020,” said BMTD Executive Director Alex McHaddad Tuesday at a forum that addressed the proposed channel.

The addition of the channel was made possible by the passage of Senate Bill 394 by the Legislature earlier this year. The bill allows a public translator district to use the technology necessary to create a public access-like channel. This means BMTD, the only public translator district in Oregon, one which relays signals from Portland and Boise stations, will soon be able to broadcast the meetings of school boards, county commissioners, city councils and any other public meetings and events.

“We want to make it as easy as possible (for people to watch public meetings),” said McHaddad, who explained he understands that it is hard for people who are working to attend meetings of public bodies.

The technology for the new channel will also enable the meetings to be livestreamed over the internet and archived so they can be viewed later by anyone.

The system for broadcasting the meetings has not been determined yet, but one option under consideration would be to have LaGrandeAlive.TV, a local internet TV station, help BMTD broadcast and record the meetings. Brent Clapp of LaGrandeAlive.TV, said that public bodies like the Union County Board of Commissioners already has an excellent sound system in place which would make broadcasting its meetings much easier.

The channel would do much more than carry public meetings. It would also provide information like burn notices and public services announcements, and broadcast local events such as athletic contests, plays, concerts and programming that people in the community have recorded themselves.

Programs created locally on nutrition, cooking at local restaurants, tourism and safety are among those audience members suggested at Tuesday’s forum. Clapp said that shows about such topics have the potential to be hits.

“You can take anything mundane and give it a local tie, and it can become quite popular,” he said.

BMTD is looking into a number of funding options, some of which would involve the sale of advertising. For example, a person may be able to provide advertising for his or her program, the revenue from which would be shared by BMTD and the program creator.

McHaddad said that if someone submits a program but has no advertising sold for it, BMTD may find extra advertising it has available and run it with the program.

“We want to have multiple options available so that we don’t turn anyone away who has created content,” McHaddad said.

Steps that have to be taken before the public access channel is created include developing a strategic plan for the channel in the winter of 2020 and receiving FCC approval in the summer of 2020.

Senate Bill 394 also allows translator districts to begin operating under higher FCC digital standards known as Advanced Television Systems Committee 3, also referred to as “Next Generation Television.” Once BMTD is in line with the higher standards, viewers will be able to download e-books, watch videos on demand, get emergency alerts and more.

“Using your TV will be similar to browsing the web,” McHaddad said.

The emergency alerts would be received by people who watch TV via BMTD. The messages would even reach viewers whose televisions were not on since the alerts would switch on their sets.

The messages, in the event of something like a wildfire, would provide up-to-the-second information about the event, escape routes and more. McHaddad said this could be a particularly invaluable service in the event of a disaster that knocks out cellphone service throughout the region. He explained that when cellphone towers go down and stop functioning, television broadcast towers often remain up and operating.

“Broadcast towers are much more resilient to natural disasters,” McHaddad said.

The process of installing an ATSC 3 system will take five to 10 years. One reason is that BMTD viewers will need new tuners to operate their sets when the new standards are in place. McHaddad said the BMTD would not want to begin broadcasting in ATSC 3 until most of its subscribers have these tuners. He also noted that the BMTD will not begin doing this until all of the Portland and Boise stations it receives signals from are also broadcasting in ATSC 3. Until they do, BMTD would not be able to relay their signals at the higher standard.

The BMTD has a total of 1,500 paid subscribers in Union and Baker counties, and each are required to pay $100 a year. However, McHaddad estimates that only half of the households who watch programming provided by BMTD pay the subscription fee for it.

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