NORTH ADAMS — As of next week, Spectrum customers in the Williamstown, Adams and North Adams area will no longer be able to watch TV without a digital conversion box.
And while the company says the transition to an all-digital signal will provide customers with better service, state and local officials are questioning its legality.
"What is happening here is a travesty," said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams. "What they're doing is in clear violation of the contract."
Barrett and North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard met with Spectrum representatives on Monday, but Barrett said central issues were left unresolved.
As part of its transition to a 100 percent digital signal, the company is encrypting its signal, which will require a converter to decrypt it on any TV not currently hooked up to a cable box. The change already has taken place in the Lee area; customers in the Pittsfield area will make the transition in early March,
Most customers will be eligible to receive at least one free box for a limited period of time, depending on their cable package, according to the company. Beyond that, customers will be charged $6.99 per month per box, or $11.75 per month if they remain on a legacy Time Warner Cable package. Charter Communications, the parent company of Spectrum, purchased the company last year.
"Most customers already had at least some digital equipment in their homes, so for most, it's about connecting a secondary TV," said Andrew Russell, a spokesperson for Charter Communications. "Customers have told us self-installing their boxes is easier than they expected."
Spectrum recently raised its starting internet speeds from 60 Mbps to 100 Mbps in the Berkshires, Russell said.
"The benefits of Spectrum's all-digital upgrade will play out over months and even years, as we redeploy that capacity for faster internet speeds, more channels and on-demand content, and more features," he said.
Customers can obtain the boxes through Spectrum's website or at any of its stores in Pittsfield, Lee or North Adams. Or, they can purchase a Spectrum-enabled streaming device like a Roku or Xbox One.
The company has begun the all-digital transition in the majority of the 41 states in which it provides service, Russell said.
The move was met with protest from Barrett, who is a longtime rival of cable companies and took to Facebook to express his dismay in a post he says reached more than 19,000 people.
"Their new requirement that you must have a digital box for each of your TV sets in order to receive their signal is highway robbery," Barrett wrote. "Spectrum is requiring these boxes for their benefit and not the consumers' benefit."
Barrett plans to meet with representatives from the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable next week, and will take the fight to the Attorney General's Office next. He's also reached out to the Federal Communications Commission.
"I'm going after them, and I'm angry now because there's a lot of people that are hurt," Barrett said, adding that when it comes to cable, "there's no effective competition in Berkshire County."
Officials are also concerned about the impact the transition could have on public, educational and government access channels.
Bernard noted that for a basic cable customer with two televisions who pays about $18 per month, paying monthly fees on two new boxes would roughly double his or her monthly cable bill.
"I'm concerned about people at the basic cable rate," Bernard said.
In the meeting, Barrett and Bernard also expressed concern with the company's customer service response to the change.
"If 10 different customers called there and asked them when is the start date and is it free, they will get 10 different answers," Barrett said.
Bernard said Spectrum assured it would provide additional staffing at the Hodges Cross Road office location during the transition.
Adam Shanks can be reached at email@example.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.