Residents rally behind SELCO as town weighs Charter application


Residents rally behind SELCO as town weighs Charter application
Power lines in Shrewsbury. Spectrum Northeast, known as Charter, is seeking to provide cable services to Shrewsbury. (Photo by/Dakota Antelman)

SHREWSBURY – As Spectrum Northeast, otherwise known as Charter, seeks to provide cable services to Shrewsbury, residents and employees voiced their support for Shrewsbury Electric and Cable Operations (SELCO), the town-owned, nonprofit entity that has provided cable to the town for 42 years. 

On May 28, the Select Board reviewed a cable television franchise application from Spectrum Northeast. The application, which the Select Board was legally required to consider, would put Charter in direct competition with SELCO.

Spectrum, which services customers throughout 41 U.S. states, seeks to install a fiber-to-home network throughout Shrewsbury. 

Michael Liccione, an area president for Charter Communications, went before the Select Board and said that Spectrum provides the fastest internet, mentioning the company’s ultra-reliable modem service. 

“We’re here today to seek your approval for a cable franchise that will enable us to offer our innovative and high-quality video, voice, broadband, and mobile services to the residents of the town of Shrewsbury. In today’s world, reliable high-speed internet and cable services are not just conveniences – they are essential utilities that enhance the quality of life… Our company is committed to delivering state-of-the-art technology, exceptional customer service, and robust infrastructure that will meet the needs of your community now and in the future,” said Charter Director of State Government Affairs Jennifer Young.

RELATED CONTENT: Spectrum seeks to enter Shrewsbury cable market

Spectrum emphasized the company’s customer service operation, which includes a 300-plus-employee, 24/7 call center located in Worcester. The company offers one-hour scheduled appointments to help solve problems, installations of equipment within 24 hours in some cases, and an under-30-minute response time to outages. 

However, residents and SELCO employees who attended the meeting voiced their skepticism of Charter’s claims, drawing from personal experience to refute the notion the company would provide exceptional customer service. For others, Spectrum’s offerings didn’t come close to SELCO’s service. 

In 2023, SELCO achieved an average outage time of just 10 minutes per year, the organization has said in past press releases.

“We have a localized workforce that understands Shrewsbury. The field crews know the HelpDesk crews. It streamlines communication. It makes emergency restoration and troubleshooting more efficient. All these things in aggregate add up to a much better customer experience,” SELCO General Manager Christopher Roy told the Community Advocate on Friday prior to the Select Board meeting. 

Representatives from Spectrum were asked about other topics, including a recent Telegram & Gazette report that mentioned the company had allegedly mistreated senior residents in Worcester. 

One of the issues discussed was the company’s timeline for installing cable-related infrastructure. Spectrum officials said the company would require 12 months to place lines throughout town. Roy, and other members of the public, questioned if the timeframe was realistic, especially considering significant portions of Shrewsbury’s cable infrastructure are underground. The 12-month construction period may cause disruption. 

“We’ve done this throughout the country in other communities. … It’s going to be, obviously, busy. We’re going to have crews working on the network and obviously pulling lines through areas that have poles and underground areas. It’s not something that’s not going to be visible. It’s going to be a very visible thing,” Liccione said. 

Spectrum continually expressed its interest in becoming a community partner, presenting long lists of donations and charitable endeavors in the local area, including providing digital education programs and equipment to local students. 

When speaking during the public participation section of the meeting, many characterized SELCO as the true community partner. Roy said to the Community Advocate that SELCO is more than just a partner; it’s owned by the community itself. 

“SELCO, both cable and electric, is unique in that it is an investment of the public. The citizens, the businesses all made an investment in SELCO, and therefore the success and well-being of SELCO is in the public interest. And, on the opposite end, if we have a shareholder-driven, private corporation that detracts from that, you’re now shifting that public good from the local community to private shareholders. You’ve now diluted and deteriorated the value of the investment in the public asset,” Roy said.

Although competition is often thought to be positive, Roy said that since SELCO is owned by the public, facing direct competition would only hurt the community. Plus, he said, SELCO already faces real competition from YouTube TV, Netflix, Hulu and other channels. As a public entity, SELCO’s books and finances are publicly available, while Spectrum’s shareholders meet in private, he said. 

“SELCO has done everything you’d expect out of a utility… I’d struggle to understand why we’d want to go back to having a [privately-owned] entity in our town, essentially squeezing out a very valuable asset, which is SELCO,” Shrewsbury resident Gregg Richards said at the meeting.

Although Spectrum repeatedly dismissed the characterization, SELCO argued that the company would lower its rates, undercut SELCO and then begin to charge more once SELCO’s presence had diminished. Liccione described how Spectrum “is not in the market to put something out and change it in 12 months.” While he described Spectrum as having “highly competitive” rates that hover around $49 for 300-mbps internet, he remained firm that Charter would be a reliable partner in Shrewsbury.

In an effort to show Spectrum’s dedication to Shrewsbury, Liccione said Spectrum had offered to buy SELCO. Though the exact amount of the offer was not disclosed, SELCO ultimately turned the offer down.

All in all, several community members asked the Select Board to support SELCO. 

“SELCO is beloved in our community. It’s not just they keep the lights on and TV going; people in Shrewsbury love SELCO, and that’s really hard to beat,” Select Board member Michelle Conlin said, voicing the opinion of two Shrewsbury residents who recently spoke to her. 

With only three members in attendance (Beth Casavant and Theresa Flynn were absent), the Select Board pushed voting on Spectrum’s application until its June 11 meeting. The board continued the public hearing to that date, meaning that the public will have another opportunity to weigh in on the issue prior to any official action from the town government. The Select Board will also hold office hours before that meeting.

Disclaimer: SELCO advertises with the Community Advocate newspaper.

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