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

April 16, 2013 at 11:37 AM

Comcast to scramble all channels, even locals

Comcast is taking its encryption plans another step and will begin scrambling all local broadcast channels, hobbling the capability of customers’ digital TV sets.

Seattle-area customers having trouble with Comcast received hints that this was coming, as mentioned in my April 1 column on Comcast’s moves.

Over the past four years Comcast has gradually required its customers to add some kind of cable box on all of their TV sets, giving the company more control over the content the customers view and potentially more revenue from box rentals.

The move also pushes customers with entry-level cable service to upgrade to digital packages, increasing their monthly bill by 300 percent or more. Yet it was endorsed last year by the Federal Communications Commission, which accepted the cable industry’s arguments that further encryption was needed for security and environmental reasons.

Still, customers who subscribed to limited basic service and who had newer TVs were able to get by without a cable box by tuning to a slightly different channel. For instance, after Comcast scrambled KCTS 9, these customers could tune in the digital version — Channel 9.1 — without a cable box.

Now Comcast is tightening the screw further and preparing to scramble even these “.1″ channels. Customers who had been having troubles with Comcast locally told me last month that the company hinted that this change was coming.

The company issued a statement Monday saying that it’s “beginning to proactively notify customers in select markets that we will begin to encrypt limited basic channels, as now pemitted by last year’s FCC B1 Encryption Order.” The statement was noted Monday by tech blog GigaOm.

While some see Comcast’s moves as validation of their decision to “cut the cord” and just get TV content from online sources, that’s substituting one pay service for multiple pay services that don’t include local broadcasts. Over-the-air broadcasts are another alternative for some, but those broadcasts aren’t available in some areas, leaving cable as the only alternative for local channels.

Despite the rise of online services and Comcast’s aggressive encryption strategy, cord-cutters also remain the minority, with the vast majority of Americans getting most of their TV content from traditional channels via cable.

Encryption hasn’t started yet. The company has just started notifications of customers in two small markets in New England. The company has yet to decide when it will begin in the Seattle region, spokesman Steve Kipp said via email.

Kipp confirmed that the encryption will extend to digital versions of local broadcast channels. They’ll still be available, “but the customer would need digital equipment from Comcast to see them. They couldn’t see them if they only had a QAM tuner,” he said.

Comcast has been giving customers the necessary equipment, but that’s about to change. The company said it will provide limited basic customers with two adapters free of charge for just two years. Customers with higher priced plans will get one adapter free for one year. After that the company will charge “market pricing” for the devices.

The encryption also disables some TV devices from other manufacturers. Early versions of the Boxee Box device won’t work encrypted channels or Comcast’s “DTA” digital adapters, which are only compatible with the latest version of the Boxee device.

Comcast is providing more details at this FAQ page.

As I said in the April 1 column, perhaps it’s time for more aggressive local and federal regulations.

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