LENOX >> Charter Communications, which completed its $79 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable in May, is pushing back against assertions by the Five-Town Cable Advisory Committee that many South Berkshire customers may see future "illegal rate increases" that could violate the towns' 10-year license signed in 2013 and transferred to Charter a year ago.
A representative for the company told the Eagle the move amounts to a service "upgrade," which would be permissible.
"Any suggestion we are in violation is inaccurate," said Charter's Northeast Regional Communications Director Andrew Russell.
Charter plans to require subscribers to basic service who have connected their TVs directly to the cable line without a set-top converter to pay $6.99 to rent digital set-top boxes for each TV after a two-year free period, according to Linda Z. Miller, who chairs the committee representing Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield and Stockbridge,
At the Lenox Select Board session this past week, she urged concerned members of the public and town officials to attend a special meeting of the committee at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Great Barrington Firehouse on State Road (Routes 7 & 23) to discuss the issue.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, plans to attend, and Charter is expected to send a representative. The regular quarterly meeting of the cable committee will follow.
As previously reported, Miller has also asked town leaders in Great Barrington, Lee, Sheffield and Stockbridge to attend the public meeting.
Charter Communications will serve South Berkshire customers under the brand name Spectrum starting early next year.
The nation's third-largest pay-TV operator had assured the five-town committee that there would be no changes when it sought approval to take over the 10-year contract from Time Warner, said committee volunteer James Biancolo in a presentation to the Select Board.
The requirement to rent converter boxes, which cannot be purchased, would amount to a 50 percent price increase for customers now paying $14 a month for basic, 20-channel service, he said. Most of those subscribers are elderly and many are low-income, Biancolo noted.
"Cost is obviously a concern as is the inconvenience to the elderly," he said.
Miller contended that the scope of the changes would be greater because any customers who don't have DVR converter boxes would be affected, which Charter maintains is not the case. As a "wild guess," she predicted that 60 percent of current Time Warner subscribers in the five towns are likely to be impacted.
On its website, Charter tells customers that "no new or additional equipment is required to receive Charter Spectrum services. Note that you must have a digital set-top-box connected to any TV on which you would like to receive Charter Spectrum TV service. Types of digital set-top-boxes include SD, HD, or DVR boxes."
Miller said that under the existing five-town contract that was transferred to Charter/Spectrum, "they cannot do any kind of upgrade that puts an undue financial burden on the subscribers. We feel that by definition, the pricing they're putting out is an undue financial burden."
Warning that Charter/Spectrum is imposing "an illegal rate increase," Miller said an attorney with the Boston firm Kopelman and Paige is working with the five-town committee. At a future meeting, the Lenox Select Board will be asked to budget $1,000 for "exploratory work, should we need it," she told members.
However, in response to questions from The Eagle, a Charter/Spectrum official pointed out that the company has committed to the Federal Communications Commission "to upgrade the former Time Warner Cable markets to all-digital as part of its merger."
"The all-digital format provides a sharper picture, more HD channels, enables faster broadband speeds and opens the door to future innovation," Russell said.
"Our franchise agreement with the five Southern Berkshire towns is designed to encourage improvements to our network — not inhibit them," he said.
Russell said the company is encrypting its signals, thus requiring set-top converters, because "we believe customers should have digital equipment on every outlet so they can benefit from the two-way interactivity digital provides — clearer picture, access to Video On Demand programming, our on-screen interactive guide and easy-to-use parental controls."
He also pointed out that an all-digital network enables faster broadband speeds.
"It's worth noting that TV sets, consumer electronics, music, movies, and even broadcast TV transmissions have already gone exclusively digital," Russell said. "Our competitors, such as satellite providers, have long required customers to have boxes for each TV."
While Charter does not release specific customer data, he noted, "a large percentage of customers in the area have at least one piece of digital equipment in their homes already."
Asked whether any customers above basic, low-price service will see eventual price increases, Russell responded that "while we believe customers will see Spectrum packaging and pricing as a better value, they will have the option to keep their current package if they prefer."
Charter plans to launch the Spectrum brand in South Berkshire in early 2017, he added. "Right now, we're focused on making the integration process as smooth as possible for our customers. In the coming months, we'll be communicating with customers to let them know when Spectrum is coming and what they need to do."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
If you go . . .
What: Five-Town Cable Advisory Committee special meeting followed by regular quarterly meeting
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Great Barrington Fire House, 27 State Road (Routes 7 and 23), Great Barrington
Why: The committee representing Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield and Stockbridge will discuss new converter requirements for some cable subscribers and will hear public comments, complaints and suggestions.