July 7, 2008

Comcast Will Push Some To Digital

By Gil Smart

Associate Editor

[email protected]

Comcast, as the commercial says, has you covered.

When the federally mandated switch to all-digital broadcasting takes place next February, the cable giant says that analog customers running a cable straight from the wall into their TV won't miss a beat.

But because of some changes Comcast itself is set to make, some might soon need one of those digital converter boxes after all.

USA Today reported last month that by the end of 2008, Comcast will discontinue its popular expanded basic cable package in 20 percent of its markets. Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander said he doesn't know whether Lancaster will be among them; but the switch will have hit all Comcast markets by 2010.

When the change occurs, expanded basic cable customers will have a choice: Switch to the lower-priced basic cable package, with significantly fewer channels, or get one of the converter boxes, which Comcast will make available at little to no charge, said Alexander.

Present customers of basic cable won't be affected, he said. Customers who have basic cable today will continue to have basic cable in the future.

But the channels Comcast now transmits in analog - in effect, channels 2 through 78 for Lancaster expanded basic cable customers - eat up a lot of bandwidth. Indeed, for every one analog channel, cable companies can transmit 12 standard-definition digital channels, or up to three high-definition digital channels, in the same space.

Right now we have a limited amount of real estate' to deliver the things most of our customers are asking for, Alexander said. These wants include more video on demand and higher Internet speeds.

Comcast began migrating analog channels earlier this year, when four networks - TCM, Game Show Network, Country Music Television and TV Guide Network - were moved to digital, forcing those who wanted to keep watching them to get a converter box. The boxes were free, but after a year customers pay a $2 monthly fee for them.

That prompted numerous complaints from local analog cable customers, who prefered things the way they were.

We understand change can be disruptive, Alexander said, adding that the company will work with customers to help them understand what changes impact them. We will communicate early and often.

Nationwide, USA Today reported that 43 percent of cable customers depend entirely on analog service. But Alexander said some 70 to 90 percent of customers in the local market subscribe to some digital level of service.

That would include those who got the converter box after the four channel migration earlier this year.

Pennsylvania is a very mature market, and that attests to the very high level of digital service, he said.

Still, even those who subscribe to a digital cable package or have a converter box hooked up to one TV might have other televisions throughout the house plugged into the cable outlet on the wall. Comcast's plan would require a converter box for them, too.

Alexander said the box has its benefits. Even if you're not subscribing to a digital [programming] package, you still have digital benefits, he said. The box will permit people to order video programming on demand, much of which is free, and listen to more than 45 commercial-free digital music channels, among other things.

People who have [the digital] box are happier customers, he said. We find that in our surveys.

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