ST. PAUL, Minn. - Heads up, Comcast cable customers! Big changes in equipment and service are sweeping across the Twin Cities service area in 2010. For many cable customers, the changes will be as dramatic and possibly as complicated as the 2009 digital conversion for over-the-air TV receivers.
Bidding analog good-bye
"This is Comcast's digital transition and making an upgrade to its digital fiber optic network," said Mary Beth Schubert, Comcast Regional Vice President for Corporate Affairs. Comcast is in the process of sending letters to most of its 560,000 area customers, explaining that the cable giant is phasing out its analog service.
"What we're doing right now, is we're transmitting in both analog and digital and so, our analog transmission will be going away for our 'Basic Two' (B-Two) customers and above," said Schubert. B-Two is also called "Standard" cable. Comcast insists this will free up band width and result in better, faster service for all of its customers. However, Schubert admits this will require some physical changes for Comcast customers.
What it means to you
The bottom line is this: If you are a Comcast customer and you have what is called 'B-Two' and above service, you are going to need one of two digital devices on every single television set in your house, whether it is a DTV set or Standard Definition.
Schubert claims that such "boxes" will not seem foreign to most of Comcast's customers. "The vast majority of our 'Basic Two' customers, and above, already have a digital box in their home, but they might not have a digital box associated (installed) with their secondary set. So, they will need to order what we're calling a Digital Transport Adapter or DTA."
"Basic" customers not affected
It is important to note that "B-One" Comcast customers are not affected by the changes. "B-One" is also called "Basic" cable in the Comcast lexicon, as opposed to the "Standard" cable name for "B-Two" customers. "B-One" customers do not have to add any additional equipment or make any changes. "B-One" customers' TV sets are hooked directly to the cable lines, but only receive the local broadcast stations and a couple of "community" channels.
Two kinds of boxes
The "box" that most higher-service Comcast customers already have is the so-called "Set top box." It is the larger device that allows customers to have full access to all of Comcast's channels and services. The DTA is a smaller, less sophisticated device that only transmits cable channels to a TV, but does not allow interactive services. Both types of devices come with remote controls that allow the customer to access channels and services.
Only first three boxes are "free"
Normally, there are service charges for adding any of the devices to a customer's home. However, in order to ease the financial pain of the transition, Comcast will provide one "Set top" and two DTA boxes to customers free of charge. Additional DTAs carry a $1.99 per month charge for each DTA. The charge for additional "Set top" boxes is $7.00 per box, per month.
"They can order (the free boxes) on-line, over the phone or go into our payment centers and pick up DTA's (kits) for their secondary sets," said Schubert.
Those charges assume that the customer will install the boxes themselves. There are "self installment" instructions in the kits that Comcast provides along with instructions and videos on its Web site. Customers can have Comcast technicians install the boxes for them. The cost of such professional installation is $15.95 per household.
World of More or less?
Schubert sees the change as an opportunity for Comcast customers. "We are calling this the 'World of More' because once our customers go through this transition and insure that there's a digital box associated with all of their televisions, they will immediately receive, in essence, a free upgrade. They are going to be getting, initially, 15 new channels. Those include things like Bloomberg Television, Lifetime Movie Networks and, when an official 'cutover' takes place, they will be getting many more enhancements. They will be getting additional HD options, High Definition options."
Not all Comcast customers are excited by the "enhancements." Bruce Amiot of Coon Rapids thinks the "World of More" is a world of less and a downgrade from the service he enjoyed before he installed new boxes.
Amiot owns a high definition set, but says he lost the ability to view the HD signal of local broadcast stations, when he hooked up the new digital box. Previously, he was able to see KARE11, for instance, in analog by punching "11" on his remote. He could access KARE11 HD by simply "upping" his channel changer by one channel. Once the digital box was installed, that access disappeared.
Amiot felt the letter he received from Comcast was less than truthful. The letter urged getting the digital devices in order "to continue to receive your current level of service." Amiot felt he had lost some of that service. "And as long as I'm connected to this box from the cable, I'm kind of stuck."
Comcast offers free solution
Comcast's Schubert is aware of the situation for non-digital customers who own HD sets like Amiot. "He needs to use an A-B switch and a splitter."
Comcast will provide the "A-B switch" and a "splitter" to be installed along with the digital boxes for each of his sets. There is no charge for the additional hardware, but the solution does involve having the additional cords and devices on the TVs.
The alternative for customers like Amiot is to upgrade to a higher level of Comcast service with the resulting higher monthly subscriber fees. That is something Amiot says he is not willing to do. His is one of many such personal choices facing thousands of Comcast customers as the digital transition is phased in during 2010.
Transition is underway
The cable company's transition has already begun. Starting in Western Wisconsin and crossing the Saint Croix River in March and April, more and more customers will have to add the digital boxes or lose much of their service. It is expected that the transition will reach the Twin Cities' western suburbs in late summer or early fall. The entire transition is to be completed before the end of 2010.
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