Spectrum poised to go 100% digital in 6 towns, but encryption plan has its critics

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Spectrum cable TV service is going 100 percent digital Tuesday in six South County towns.

And that means customers will need a digital receiver for any TV not connected to a cable box.

In a nationwide push to upgrade its network by 2019, Spectrum, a Charter Communications subsidiary, will encrypt its video transmissions starting Tuesday in the switch to a two-way, interactive digital service in Lee, Lenox, Great Barrington, Sheffield, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.

Spectrum customers in Pittsfield and North Adams will see their service switch in early 2018.

The move has drawn a harsh response from the head of the Five Town Cable Advisory Committee, which represents Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield and Stockbridge, who said the upgrade is a corporate scheme to increase revenue by using encryption to hold customers hostage.

Chairwoman Linda Miller is focusing on the encryption aspect of the change, saying that cable transmissions already are digital and have been digital since 2009.

"What they are really doing is switching to encrypted digital signals," she wrote. "Though the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has said [Charter] may do this, it didn't say they must. Charter ... has opted to do this, saying the use of encryption is to fight theft of signal."

She added: "The problem is that we here in the Berkshires do not have any signal theft issues. So why should we be forced to combat a problem that we don't have, you may ask?"

The issue comes up for discussion Dec. 12, when, Miller said, Spectrum/Charter officials will be available for public comment at the Five Town Cable Advisory Committee's quarterly open meeting at Great Barrington Town Hall.

The session starts at 6:30 p.m.

Spectrum has been notifying customers of the change and plans to extend hours at its Lee store to help people in South County make the switch.

Charter/Spectrum spokesman Andrew Russell told The Eagle that most customers can get free digital receivers for one, two or five years, depending on the service they purchase. He said customers who want the additional boxes must pay after their free promotional time is up.

The cost is $5.99 per month for a customer with a Spectrum package and $11.75 per month for those on plans through the former Time Warner Cable.

According to Tom Rutledge, chairman and CEO of Charter, the move will improve picture quality, increase internet speeds, and pull in more high-definition and On Demand content.

Russell said the company has boosted internet speeds in the Berkshires this year.

Sees violation

Miller said she believes that the switch violates the five towns' franchise agreements with Charter/Spectrum, since those contracts state that the company "can implement technological developments if they can be done without adding a financial burden to subscribers."

Russell said the company is responding to its customers.

"This is about adding capacity to our network to enable the things our customers tell us they want, like faster internet speeds, more HD and On Demand movies, and shows and new features."

He called encryption "literally the last step of the process."

The FCC website says signal theft affects what a company like Charter can deliver.

"Encryption reduces service theft, which often degrades the quality of cable service received by paying subscribers," the agency said.

The FCC site also says encryption allows the company to remotely activate or deactivate service, and the customer doesn't have to wait for a technician to come.

Heather Bellow can be reached hbellow@berkshireeagle.com, at @BE_hbellow on Twitter and 413-329-6871.


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