PITTSFIELD —First it was South County, then it was Northern Berkshire, and soon it will be Pittsfield's turn.
On Tuesday, Charter Spectrum will establish an all-digital signal in Pittsfield, something that it previously established in South County in December and for Northern Berkshire customers last week.
Pittsfield Community Television's three community access channels — public, education and government currently available on channels 16-18 and 19-1 through 19-3 — will be located solely on channels 1301, 1302 and 1303 once the switch to all-digital takes place.
Charter Spectrum is switching to all-digital across the country in order to encrypt its signal, which means that subscribers will no longer be able to view programs by connecting their televisions directly to the cable.
That means viewers will need a separate cable decoder box for each television they own. Without a separate box, their TVs will receive nothing but blank screens.
"What that means is they're preventing digital signals through their cable system from being picked up in the open, so they can only be coded with their boxes," said PCTV's Executive Director Shawn Serre, referring to encryption. "If you were to connect a cable directly to your TV, there were still a bunch of channels that you could pick up, but by putting all of them only on a digital signal, they can only be received by a box."
The all-digital upgrade removes analog signals and adds capacity to the cable network that allows users to obtain even faster internet speeds and give customers more high definition, and On Demand programming. It will also set the stage for future innovations, said Heidi Vandenbrouck, a spokeswoman for Charter Communications, Spectrum's parent company.
"Encryption is literally the last step in the process and is about making sure customers are receiving the programming they subscribe to," Vandenbrouck said via email.
The need for additional decoder boxes hasn't gone over well in other Berkshire municipalities.
In December, South Berkshire communities wired for Spectrum asked the state attorney general to intervene in their converter box controversy with the cable television provider.
Most customers will be eligible to receive at least one free box for a limited amount of time, depending on their programming package, Vandenbrouck said. Once the free period ends, the monthly fee for digital receivers will be $6.99 for those with Spectrum television packages, and $11.75 per box for those who have legacy Time-Warner cable packages,
"The vast majority of customers already have at least one piece of digital equipment," Vandenbrouck said, referring to the cable boxes.
The Attorney General's Office has been monitoring the switch to digital and how it affects Berkshire residents.
"Our office is aware of the situation and has met with the parties involved to learn more about Charter Spectrum's switch to digital and its impact on the Berkshire communities. We are monitoring the situation and encourage those who have concerns to reach out to our office," said Chloe Gotsis, a spokeswoman or Attorney General Maura Healey.
Berkshire residents who have complaints can call the Attorney General's Office at 617-727-8400 or file online at https://www.mass.gov/how-to/file-a-consumer-complaint
In Pittsfield, Mayor Linda M. Tyer is invoking a measure in the city's current cable television franchise agreement with Charter Spectrum that allows the city to review the service annually. The contract expires in September 2024. The action came following an analysis of the contract that was conducted by attorney Buffy Lord, working for the city solicitor's office.
"Their failure has fallen on many of us in many ways, and that's a shame," Lord told the City Council Tuesday night.
The current contract does not allow the city to challenge the additional decoder box requirement, according to Tyer. The agreement does require Spectrum to provide three video channels for non-commercial use and to have them situated within the basic service tier, but the contract doesn't require them to be located at a certain channel number.
"But that doesn't mean that we have to quietly accept it," Tyer said.
The city will be holding a public hearing at 6 p.m. March 19 at the Berkshire Athenaeum to give city residents the opportunity to provide input about their service before Charter Spectrum officials. Tyer said the city may be able to talk to Charter Spectrum again about moving the public access channels after the public hearing takes place.
"Maybe we'll be able to revisit it," she said.
Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at email@example.com or 413-496-6224.