GREAT BARRINGTON — A public hearing on new cable technology got heated on Tuesday as members of the area served by the Five-Town Cable Advisory Committee demanded answers about Charter Spectrum's plans to introduce encrypted digital television signals.
"It's not proper to make us pay for something we don't need and don't want," said Linda Miller, the committee's chairwoman. The five-town committee represents consumers in the towns of Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield and Stockbridge.
Charter Communications purchased Time Warner Cable in May, and will begin serving the Berkshires under the name Charter Spectrum early next year. Miller said company representative Tom Cohan assured the committee in September that there would be no changes to service after the deal went through.
But the company now says it plans to utilize digital signal encryption, which would require the need to rent converter boxes for $6.99 per month — after a two-year grace period. While the majority of cable customers already have converters, the change would affect a small number of people who can only afford basic cable.
"We want to make sure that older people with limited means can afford this," said Jim Biancolo of Lenox, speaking to the committee.
There's no way around the charge. Since each cable operator has encrypted its own signals there would be no "universal" converter that could be manufactured to serve customers of all the different systems.
Some at the meeting asked how much the box actually costs the company, but Cohan and his lawyer, John Fogerty, said they didn't know.
The committee sees the cable box rental fee as an illegal extra charge that violates the terms of the contract with the new company. Cohan told the board that new management made no difference — this would have happened anyway.
"Charter is doing what Time Warner would have done," Cohan said.
He said the company views the encryption as an upgrade for their service, and thus not a violation of the agreement.
Miller questioned why the encryption was going forward in the first place. She pointed out that the FCC has not mandated the new technology and that cable theft — the main reasoning behind encryption — is a nonexistent problem in the Berkshires.
Miller said she confirmed with the office of Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless that there were zero cases of prosecutable cable theft over the past five years. But Cohan was unmoved.
"As the cable operator, we have authority over what technology we use," said Cohan.
The committee meets again on Dec. 13 in Sheffield.
Cohan was warned to find a solution to the issues surrounding the encryption converter boxes— or face the consequences.
"We don't want to file a lawsuit," Miller said. "But we will if we have to."