Five Town Cable Advisory Committee seeks AG's help over converter box bout with Spectrum

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GREAT BARRINGTON — South Berkshire communities wired for Spectrum want the state attorney general to intervene in their converter box controversy with the cable television provider.

The Five Town Cable Advisory Committee, representing Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield, claims that the boxes are an undue financial burden on Spectrum subscribers, violating the municipalities' license agreement with the company. Spectrum's parent company, Charter Communications, rebuffed the allegation, believing that the converters are necessary for its newly activated encrypted digital service it says is backed by federal regulators.

The converter box issue, poor customer service, channel lineup and pending price hikes highlighted the topics the cable committee discussed and debated with regional Charter officials for nearly two hours at the panel's quarterly meeting Tuesday.

The local cable watchdogs negotiated the 10-year license deal with Time Warner Cable, which Charter inherited nearly two years ago when it merged with Time Warner. The committee is looking to Attorney General Maura Healey and her staff for help.

"We want the backbone of the state to fight for the contract we approved," said cable committee Chairwoman Linda Miller.

The panel urged the five towns' administrators and Select Boards to take the lead and pursue action from the Attorney General's Office.

"We heard clearly your desire ... and we're happy to do so," said Christopher Ketchen, chief administrative officer for Lee and Lenox.

Since Charter voluntarily upgraded to an encrypted signal Dec. 5 to prevent theft of service, it doesn't breach the contract, according to John Fogarty, a Charter attorney. He said the license agreement deals only with consumer financial hardships due to mandated improvements to the cable system.

"The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is in agreement with us ... this is an improvement in quality," Fogarty told the cable committee.

"You could have done the upgrade without encryption. Charter has created a mini monopoly," cited Steve Moritz, committee representative from Lee.

Spectrum subscribers in the Pittsfield area and Northern Berkshires will see a switch to encrypted service early in 2018.

The main issue is, Spectrum customers can't buy, only rent, the converter boxes for a $5.99 monthly fee — a cost jumping to $6.99 on Feb. 1, according to Charter. Those still with Time Warner subscriptions through Spectrum pay up to $11.75 per box. Subscribers with the 20-channel basic service under either Spectrum or Time Warner pay $3.99 per box.

But confusion reigns over whether the first box is free of charge for one year or two receivers are free for two years. Furthermore, the advisory committee noted that some Spectrum advertising gives one set of prices and customer service representatives another when it comes to a variety of subscriber costs. The committee wants price clarifications by mid-January.

Sheffield businessman Paul Tepper spent hours trying to straighten out his new cable bill via Charter's toll-free telephone service or through Charter's Lee and Pittsfield offices.

"Your people on the phone don't have a clue, and your people in the Berkshires don't respond," he said.

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Other cable subscribers at the meeting told of defective converter boxes, uncooperative customer service employees and one technician making a house call with the wrong work order that the subscriber had a hard time getting changed.

"Some people are at the point they don't want to even talk to Spectrum," said Sheffield committee representative Rene Wood.

"It's been a nightmare and, for some people, beyond a nightmare," Miller added.

Miller and the committee admitted that usually disgruntled people attend meetings like the one Tuesday night and those who are satisfied usually stay home.

Frank Boehlke, Charter's director of field operations for the eastern New York/Berkshire region, agreed that Spectrum has received mixed reviews in the area.

"I'm not downplaying the issues, but there are happy customers," he said.

As for individual customer complaints, he added: "We will look into what's going on."

One complaint is, the three community access channels of CTSB, Community Television for the Southern Berkshires, have moved from the basic tier of channels 16, 17 and 18 to the channels 1301,1302 and 1303 of the expanded tier.

Miller noted that the move was without warning, and since 16, 17 and 18 are still blank, why not return the CTSB programming to the original channels.

"I don't think it can be easily changed," Fogarty said.

Finally, the committee felt that Great Barrington and Sheffield were being penalized for being nonrate-regulated communities, as subscribers in those towns will have higher fee increases Feb. 1 than Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge, which are rate-regulated.

For example, the nonrate-regulated communities will see a nearly $5 increase in the monthly basic tier cost compared with the $3 hike for Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge.

The Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation approves rate increases for the basic service tier only for those communities that want regulated cable rates. Upper-tier rates are unregulated.

Charter noted that all customers start with a basic tier fee, which pays for local broadcast and community access channels and any other channels the cable operator chooses to add.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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