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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

April 1, 2013 at 6:00 PM

Comcast expands digital adapter plan, time for new approach?

April Fool’s isn’t a one-day event for Comcast customers, especially those who subscribe to the company’s most-basic cable-TV service.

Over the past three months, those customers in Washington have been surprised to turn on their sets and discover that their high-definition TVs and cable service had stopped working.

A high-def digital adapter at Comcast's booth at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

A high-def digital adapter at Comcast’s booth at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

Instead, there was a blurry message telling them they needed additional equipment to continue getting channels because the network had been upgraded to digital service.It wasn’t a prank, unfortunately. A jumble of outdated and misguided regulations have enabled cable providers to turn the screws on customers, pushing them toward more-costly products and services.

The proliferation of online video services suggests there are alternatives, but they come with a price.

Meanwhile, most Americans mostly watch regular TV shows via cable. They shouldn’t be gouged if they want a decent picture on their high-def TV.

Comcast began requiring digital adapters to unscramble digital signals in 2009. Since then, it steadily has been converting more of its system to digital, scrambling more channels and expanding the requirement to use some kind of a cable box or adapter on every TV.

This requirement received the FCC’s blessing last year. The agency agreed to let cable companies scramble all of their channels and require descramblers on every set.

The FCC’s justification was muddled. Scrambling would purportedly prevent stealing content, though the FCC requires conventional television broadcasters to beam their shows freely over the air.

The FCC also made a tortured environmental argument for the move, saying the mandatory adapters allowed cable companies to remotely activate and deactivate service, reducing service calls and their carbon footprint.

Unmentioned is the environmental effect of factories in China making adapters that must be delivered, attached to every TV and continuously plugged in.

Not long after this rule was passed, Comcast extended its adapter requirement to its lowest tier of service, the “limited basic” plans that primarily carry local channels. It notified customers with a mailer, which said people with modern “QAM” tuners in their TVs would still get channels 2-29, 72-79 and 95-99 without an adapter.

April Fool’s came last week to Bainbridge Island resident Linda Sewright. She subscribes to Comcast’s most-basic service because she can’t receive over-the-air TV signals. Her TV has a digital QAM tuner, so it worked without a cable box; she simply plugged the cable directly into the set. But suddenly the channels stopped.

Multiple calls to Comcast connected Sewright to five or six representatives who gave her conflicting advice. One said a QAM should work; another said she needed a small digital adapter box called a “DTA.” It turned out she could still get most of her channels — in high def — without an adapter. The trick is to tune the TV to channel 4.1, instead of 4, 5.1 instead of 5, and so on.

This is a hassle, especially if you’re recording shows on a media PC or digital video recorder. And it may not last. Comcast told Sewright she may eventually need an adapter anyway, implying it may further shuffle and scramble channels.

“What’s really frustrating to me is Comcast doesn’t help the consumer at all,” she said.

Sewright could get a free DTA from Comcast, but it would be standard definition, in effect downgrading her TV. Or she could pay an extra $2.50 per month for a high-def DTA that duplicates her TV’s capability.

When I asked why it’s charging for a high-def adapter, spokesman Walter Neary provided a statement saying the DTAs “continue to be an inexpensive, easy and efficient way for customers to enjoy improved digital quality signals throughout the home, and to bring all our customers more channel choices, HD and faster Internet speeds.”It seems to me that Comcast is pushing the rules.

Other FCC regulations say cable companies “must carry” local broadcast channels, without degrading their quality.

Since 2009, local stations have been required to broadcast digitally in high def, and virtually all new TVs are now high def.

Shouldn’t Comcast be obligated to provide those local channels in high def, without an extra monthly charge? Otherwise it’s providing substandard service to its entry-level customers.

I asked Gail Karish, an Ontario, Calif., lawyer who helps municipalities deal with cable issues, whether this is legal.

“The practice has been permitted. The FCC hasn’t said you can’t do that,” she said.

Maybe it’s time for the FCC to clarify things. It has the authority to require cable companies to meet minimum quality standards, but it hasn’t updated the standards since the early 1990s. Meanwhile we’re zooming beyond plain old high def, into an era of ultra-HD 4K TVs.

In August the FCC began updating the standards, but it’s primarily looking at technical performance and issues such as pixelation. Those are important, but I’d argue it’s also time to include “high definition” in the criteria for quality cable service.

Some local governments are starting to push in this direction, with their cable-franchise agreements, according to Andrew Afflerbach, chief executive of CTC, a Maryland cable and telecom consulting firm.

An opportunity is coming up for Seattle to mandate that basic cable be high-def service without an extra charge. The city’s just starting to renegotiate its agreement with Comcast, a process that will take several years to complete, according to Tony Perez, the city’s cable-franchise manager.

“In a negotiation, anything can be negotiated,” he said.

What’s that old saying? Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Comments | Topics: Comcast, digital adapter, Digital TV


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