Many Bay Area Comcast customers will soon need set-top boxes
By Troy Wolverton
Posted: 01/30/2009 06:44:16 PM PST
Many Comcast customers who receive analog cable will soon have to get a set-top box to keep watching most channels.
The company is upgrading its system in the Bay Area, moving 47 basic channels that it now delivers via analog signals to digital transmissions.
The changes will begin about March 9 in Pleasanton and Santa Clara and continue a week later in San Mateo, San Carlos, San Rafael and other cities. The company, which has started telling affected customers, has not said when it will make the upgrade in San Jose. But it plans to complete the Bay Area revamp by the end of the year.
Digital signals require less bandwidth than analog ones, said Andrew Johnson, a Comcast spokesman. The change will free up space to offer all customers more high-definition channels and faster Internet connections.
"We can give customers more of the services they are wanting," he said.
For now, Comcast won't charge customers extra for the digital channels, Johnson said. And it plans to hand out up to three set-top boxes per subscriber for no extra charge.
The upgrade will allow Comcast to offer on-demand programs, some of which it charges extra for, to customers who previously couldn't get them, Johnson said. Also, to offer customers higher and more expensive packages of channels, Comcast needs them to be digital subscribers first.
Bill Nusbaum, a senior telecommunications attorney at The Utility Reform Network, a nonprofit utility industry watchdog group, worries that Comcast will use the switch to digital transmissions as an excuse to raise cable rates.
"They can say all they want about (not charging for the upgrade), but the point of fact is that they've been increasing their rates every year," he said.
The upgrade affects customers who subscribe to Comcast's analog expanded basic cable service, which offers channels from 2 to 82. About 20 to 25 percent of Comcast's customers in the Bay Area or about 340,000 to 425,000 subscribers get that level of service, Johnson said.
As part of the upgrade, Comcast will move channels 35 to 82 to digital transmissions. In order to view those channels, customers will need to have either a digital-ready set-top box from the company or a device or television that can accept a cable card.
The company is essentially upgrading its analog expanded basic customers to its entry-level digital service, Johnson said. The digital package costs on average about $1 more than the analog service, and that price difference will continue even though both sets of customers will soon be getting the same service.
At no additional charge, Comcast will give each affected customer one advanced set-top box that can receive on-demand programs and up to two regular boxes that don't have that ability. The company expects that to satisfy most customers, who on average have 2.8 televisions.
Customers who want an additional advanced set-top box will be charged $6.99 a month. Those who want additional regular boxes will pay $1.99 a month for each box.
In order to receive the boxes, subscribers will need to contact Comcast. The company has set up a special Web site and phone number for those requests. Subscribers can put in their set-top box requests at any time, even if the company hasn't yet said when it plans to upgrade its lines in their city.
The upgrade will not affect subscribers to Comcast's lowest tier service, which delivers only local television stations. The company will continue to deliver those as analog transmissions, even though most of those channels will soon be available only in digital over the air.
Federal law requires most over-the-air stations to cease analog transmissions and broadcast only in digital beginning on Feb. 17, although that may be delayed. The law doesn't affect cable companies, but many are moving to transmit channels digitally as well. After the digital broadcast transition, Comcast plans to convert the over-the-air channels to analog for its entry-level subscribers, which make up about 11 percent of its customer base in the Bay Area.
Separately, Comcast is testing out a free wireless Internet service for its New Jersey customers in stations and parking lots near the state's transit lines. The test is in its early stages, but a company official said Comcast is considering taking the service nationwide if the test goes well.
Mercury News wire services contributed to this report. Contact Troy Wolverton at email@example.com
or (408) 920-5021.Basic cable goes digital
What: A change in the way Comcast transmits basic cable channels 35 to 82. To receive those channels, most affected subscribers will have to get set-top boxes.
When: Starting around March 9.
Affected: Bay Area customers who subscribe to Comcast"s analog expanded basic cable service.
Cost: For most customers, nothing. Up to three set-top boxes will be provided free, and, for customers who request it, the company will send a technician to install the boxes.
To get a set-top box: Submit a request at 1-877-634-4434 or www.comcast.com/digitalnow