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Cable viewers may need new box

Tue., Dec. 9, 2008

Comcast says about 10,000 homes affected

Viewers who have cable TV in Spokane County don’t need to worry about being ready for the nationwide Feb. 17 digital TV conversion.

But some of them – an estimated 10,000 homes in Spokane County – will need a new cable box to continue watching some TV shows next year, a spokesman for Comcast Corp. said Monday.

The equipment is needed as Comcast converts its signal-delivery system from analog to digital.

That Comcast tweak is not the same as the federally mandated Feb. 17 transition to all-digital broadcasting of local channels. .

For several months, in fact, Comcast officials have told viewers they’re totally prepared and need not do anything to be ready for the Feb. 17 digital transition.

But what Comcast hasn’t publicly said until now is that in 2009, many of its cable viewers will need to add equipment to continue watching some programming.

Because of the cable-system change, even customers who bought recently made TV sets with digital tuners inside will need the new cable boxes, Comcast spokesman Walt Neary said.

Those free cable boxes are different from the converter boxes used for over-the-air signals.

Comcast customers who receive “expanded basic” service will be affected, Neary said.

“A good way to explain who’s affected is they’re viewers who plug a cable from the wall directly into a TV set” and get all channels up through Channel 70, he said.

Two other groups of Comcast subscribers won’t need the new boxes: those who now have digital video recorders or cable boxes, and those with “limited basic” service, which includes channels 2 through 29.

Driving the change, said Neary, is Comcast’s goal of adding more high-definition channels to the program mix. The cable industry is moving toward all-digital signal delivery, which squeezes more programs into available bandwidth.

Affected viewers now getting analog channels between 30 and 77 will see their current channels along with 20 new high-definition channels offering a variety of programming, said Neary.

Those same viewers, thanks to the free digital cable box, will also have “video on demand,” a service that lets viewers browse sports, movies or special-affairs programs and watch them anytime.

From a business perspective, those two adjustments – more HD programs and more access to video on demand – should produce more money for Comcast over time, said Neary.

Marlene Feist, the city of Spokane’s public affairs officer, said Comcast’s changes make good business sense.

“The same reason the FCC is using for the digital conversion of broadcast (over-the-air) signals is what is driving Comcast to make its conversion,” she said. “You can get more content through the pipe, and you give customers more choices,” she said.

From the city and Spokane County’s point of view, that will likely produce more revenue, she added. The city collects about a 5 percent franchise fee and a 6 percent utility tax on Comcast’s gross revenue from TV subscriptions. Spokane County collects a 6 percent franchise fee.

Neary said customers will be given ample time and information to get the new boxes.

“We will be contacting customers at least a half-dozen times to help them through this,” he said.

Crews will take the boxes to the homes of customers getting service calls this month, he said.

Cable boxes will also be given out as customers visit the Comcast office or schedule service calls.

For customers who need help installing the box, Comcast will provide that help for a fee, Neary said. “We really haven’t determined how much that might cost,” he said.

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