SOME CABLE CUSTOMERS HAVE ALREADY STARTED TO COMPLAIN
TO THE FCC.
In response, it issued a "Consumer Advisory" in April, noting
that when operators replace analog channels with digital, it's "a business
decision made by the cable companies and is not required by the federal
That may be cold comfort to subscribers forced to
make a change. Many customers complained last year when Comcast slashed
analog channel offerings in Chicago and Calaveras County, Calif.
"I would recommend that they talk to people more,"
says Chicago Department of Consumer Services Commissioner Norma Reyes.
"Comcast informed us as regulators, and the cable commission, about what
was happening. But an informed consumer is the best consumer we can have."
Harrar says that Comcast customers won't be baffled
when the local system dumps analog expanded basic service. "We're going to
hold their hand and help them get through what's happening across the
world, which is that everything is going digital."
Maybe not everything but certainly enough to make a
compelling business case to change. Just 70 analog channels take up about
half the electronic space on a typical cable system's lines. That puts
many cable systems at a competitive disadvantage.
The five largest operators carry an average of 25 HD
channels, says The Bridge Data Group. That pales next to satellite:
DirecTV (DTV) has 95, while Dish Network (DISH) has 64. Verizon's (VZ)
fiber-optic FiOS service offers 21 but promises to have about 150 by
"The whole industry is trying to figure out how to
get orders of magnitude increases in HD," says Shawn Strickland, FiOS'
vice president for video solutions. "By this holiday season, there's going
to be a stark contrast between who has an HD leadership position and who's
not making progress."
Cable systems have several technological fixes to
clear room for HD but the fastest and easiest is to dump analog
channels. Operators can fit 12 standard-definition digital channels, or
two to three HD ones, in the space it takes to offer one analog channel.
Harrar says Comcast likely will provide free digital
service for at least one TV in each home that subscribes to analog.
Comcast would love to have customers take a box that also can provide
But the campaign may only succeed if consumers who
don't have the space or desire for a box accept a brand new device: an
inexpensive, digital-to-analog adapter that can fit inconspicuously behind
"For all intents and purposes, it replicates analog
service," Harrar says. "There is no (electronic program) guide, there's no
video on demand. But you do get all of the channels that are available to
you in digital. And because it's inexpensive for us, we'll make it
inexpensive for our customers."
The danger is that this seemingly simple device could
create annoying new complications. For example, people who want the
adapter hidden behind the TV would have to snake a wire to the front to
receive remote control signals fired from across the room. That could
confound people with complex connections to a VCR, DVR or other device.
Most consumers also would have to use a remote that
comes with the adapter, or reprogram a different one, to adjust the volume
as well as change channels.
What's more, "Digital channel changes take up to a
second, or sometimes even more," says Imran Shah, managing partner of IBB
Consulting, which works with several cable companies. "From a customer
perspective, the (fast) channel change experience they're used to on
analog will go away."
Comcast says that will be fixed before it orders the
adapters. It hasn't ordered them yet, and won't say which manufacturers
are on its short list.
Still, the company's largest equipment supplier says
that it's on the case.
"We're in the prototype phase, but (eliminating the
delay) is a requirement for the product," says Rob Folk, the product
manager at Motorola.
It's important to get this right: Cable operators can
eliminate analog channels once they can afford to put a consumer-friendly
digital adapter on virtually every analog set.
The FCC ruled late last year that cable systems must
carry analog versions of most local TV stations unless all subscribers
including those with analog sets can still watch them from digital
Cable operators have several reasons to consider an
all-digital system the promised land, aside from making room for HD.
It's relatively easy to encrypt digital signals,
which would stop lots of people from stealing cable service. In addition,
operators could end the cost and frustration of having to send a
technician out every time someone wants to start, or stop, getting cable
"No truck would ever roll, because it would be an
all-electronic connect and disconnect," Kelso says. "That has an
incredible operating expense benefit to a cable company. We definitely
have an interest in that."
Cable systems also have to be all digital before they
can be redesigned to provide virtually unlimited programming choices.
The first challenge, though, is to persuade people
who are satisfied with the status quo to open themselves to change. And
Comcast says it's confident that it can make the sale.
"We have worked since 2003 to train people to
interact with their TVs in ways that they never thought that they would,"
he says. "When you say, 'What is the future of television?' it almost has
to be that you can look through tons of choices and be able to hit play,
pause, fast-forward and rewind on your schedule. We're trying to help
customers get into the future in a way that's going to offer them great
value and great choice."