How the Unknown Digital TV Transition Could Screw You

How Cable Operators Are Handling the Transition

Our survey of the top five cable operators--Cablevision, Charter, Comcast, Cox Communications, and Time Warner Cable--indicates that Cablevision and Comcast customers are the ones who will be most affected by this transition.

Here's the full story.

Cablevision: Cablevision will be the first major cable provider to offer new customers digital-only service for its expanded basic channels. Broadcast and local channels will continue to be simulcast in analog for the foreseeable future. Many expanded basic channels will continue in analog as well (45 channels currently), but Cablevision has begun eliminating various duplicate analog feeds of stations that it carries in digital format. The affected channels include ABC Family, AMC, BET, CNN Headline News, CSPAN, FUSE, Galavision, History, Lifetime, MSNBC, MTV, MTV2, Spike TV, TV Land, VH1, and WE. To receive these channels, you must attach a cable box to each television you plan on using, at a cost of $6.75 per box per month.

The company says that more than 91 percent of its 3.1 million customers have digital service, but a spokesperson acknowledges that this figure doesn't distinguish between subscribers with all-digital setups and subscribers who have one cable box in the home for digital service but additional TVs set up for analog service. (For example, a subscriber may have a cable box connected to a 55-inch plasma HDTV in the den, but no such arrangement for TVs in the bedroom, kitchen, and basement--and yet with analog service the subscriber can currently receive MSNBC on all four TVs.) Cablevision is offering its analog-only customers the option of accepting a free digital set-top box and free digital navigation for one year. If you have multiple TVs, however, you get no additional break.

Charter: Charter will offer an analog simulcast of broadcast stations. According to the company, some regions have migrated to the digital tier, but as yet it has no plans to go all-digital systemwide. Charter says that it's treating the digital migration as a gradual process. A spokesperson notes that only a handful of channels have gone from analog to digital in expanded basic, but eventually all of them will migrate. "We have tried not to make any sweeping changes for our customers," the spokesperson says.

Comcast: Comcast is pursuing in its migration to digital full-throttle: The company began what it calls "Project Cavalry" back in 2005 (some markets, including Chicago and Philadelphia, have already undergone the transition). Once the migration is complete, customers must have a set-top box for every TV in the house (either a fully interactive box, or what Comcast refers to as a "digital TV adapter") to receive Comcast's cable channels.

Comcast doesn't expect to complete its systemwide transition until the end of 2010, and probably on into 2011. "It's a complete coincidence that the government picked a [DTV transition] date that happened to be in the midst of our Project Cavalry," says Derek Harrar, general manager of video services for Comcast. Comcast's digital transition does not affect the 20 to 30 channels of broadcast and local programming, which is "why we're comfortable with saying there's no impact, because [this project] has no impact on the broadcast channels."

Comcast offers customers a full set-top box, with video-on-demand and two-way communication between the box and the cable service, for $7 a month.
Comcast isn't charging extra for customers to go to an all-digital starter level of service. Existing analog customers making the switch will get a free set-top box, with video-on-demand and two-way communication between the box and Comcast (additional boxes will rent for $7 a month). A bonus for subscribers with multiple televisions in the home: All customers, including existing digital-cable customers, are eligible to receive two free one-way converter boxes. Called a Digital Transport Adapter (DTA), the box transforms digital signals into analog. The DTA thus does for expanded basic cable channels what a DTV converter box does for over-the-air broadcast channels.

Cox Communications: Cox isn't going all-digital at this time. The company will continue to offer a strong lineup of analog channels, which means minimal to no impact on your current setup if you don't have a cable box. A spokesperson says that Cox believes such a lineup will help sharply differentiate it from competing cable companies. According to Cox, the signal will actually be down-converted from its digital format, meaning that consumers will receive both over-the-air digital programming and some digital cable programming in analog format. On Cox.com, the company states its position explicitly: "For at least three years after the June 12, 2009 deadline, Cox will continue to offer analog broadcast signals to customers who do not receive Cox's digital services."

Time Warner Cable: Time Warner plans to use switched digital to free up bandwidth. A spokesperson notes, "We are generally migrating only a couple of our markets to all-digital (New York and Los Angeles), and in some cases only parts of those markets. At this time, we don't have any plans to migrate the rest of the country." But the spokesperson adds, "It's not hard to see a world where everybody would be all-digital." Some 67 percent of Time Warner's customers are already are subscribing to digital packages; the company didn't say what number of those customers already have boxes. Time Warner charges $7 to $9 per month for its set-top boxes, depending on the customer's location and on the type of box. If you live in an area where Time Warner has gone all-digital, you'll need a box.

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