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Originally published December 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 9, 2008 at 1:51 PM

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Brier Dudley

A digital switch on way for some cable customers, too

If you're still confused about the digital TV transition that's happening in February, brace yourself. Comcast has decided to undertake a digital switcheroo of its own at about the same time, a move that will affect more than 1 million households in Washington state.

Seattle Times staff columnist

If you're still confused about the digital TV transition that's happening in February, brace yourself.

Comcast has decided to undertake a digital switcheroo of its own at about the same time, a move that will affect more than 1 million households in Washington state.

The bottom line for nearly all Comcast customers is that they'll have to put a cable box on every television, even newer models with digital tuners.

This is a shocker if you bought a new TV, expecting to just plug your cable into it and be all set.

It's also contrary to the message that cable companies and the government have been sending about digital TV — that cable customers can continue with their current setups.

Remember, there are two digital transitions happening.

One is that all TV stations will start broadcasting over-the-air content digitally on Feb. 17.

That's why the government has been offering $40 coupons toward digital converter boxes, so old "rabbit-ear" TVs will keep getting signals over the air. It's true you won't need those kind of boxes if you subscribe to cable TV.

Separately, Comcast is now tweaking its network in a way that will require most of its customers to have a different sort of box. Technically, it's moving channels 30 through 80 from analog to digital.

Unfortunately, Comcast is making its digital switch simultaneously with the broadcast change.

"It's going to be very confusing when they do this," said Tony Perez, Seattle's director of cable communications. "We've been very worried about this because they are telling people right now for the broadcast digital conversion ... if you have Comcast you don't have to worry about it. They have not told people that sometime next year they're going to digitize their programming."

Derek Harrar, Comcast's senior vice president for video, said the company actually started work on its digital transition years ago.

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"It's unfortunate timing, however ... we want to get the best service to our customers as quickly as we can," he said.

Comcast's regional spokesman, Steve Kipp, said expanded basic customers may actually be pleased with the changes, since they'll get additional channels, access to more services and free hardware.

"What we're trying to do here really amounts to a free upgrade," he said.

Responding to competition

Comcast should get benefits as well.

This will free up bandwidth — analog takes about 10 times as much as digital — so Comcast can add more high-definition content and offer faster broadband over the same system (up to 160 megabits per second).

Comcast has all sorts of competition now, including Verizon's speedy FiOS broadband, which includes TV service. There are also streaming network services such as Hulu.com, and online video-rental services from Blockbuster, Netflix and Amazon.com are challenging Comcast's profitable "On Demand" rental business.

By putting cable boxes in more customers' homes, Comcast is expanding the reach of its rental business and the advertising potential of its program guide.

After getting feedback from early customers in Chicago and Denver, Comcast decided to also start providing a secondary type of cable box to homes with multiple TVs.

Called a "DTA," this device is about the size of a box of frozen spinach and can be mounted behind a TV. It allows the TV to display channels 30 and above without a full cable box. They do not record shows, display program guides or enable rentals like a full box.

The DTAs debuted this week in Salem, Eugene and Corvallis, Ore.

Within the next few months

Comcast isn't saying exactly when its digital switch will happen here, but it's imminent. I'd guess within four months.

After I called last week, the company said it will begin giving free boxes to new expanded basic customers in Washington.

Here's a run-through of how different customer tiers will be affected:

• Customers with limited basic — just channels 2-29 — won't be affected at all. Those channels will stay analog, so those customers can still just plug their cable into a new or old TV.

• Customers with expanded basic service who do not have a cable box (and who connected their TV directly to the cable jack) will receive one free. Comcast will also give them up to two DTAs free. Additional units will rent for $1.99 per month.

• Customers with a box now won't need a new one. But if they have additional sets in the home, those sets will needs DTAs.

Kipp said only about 10 percent of Comcast's Washington customers have expanded basic service.

But Perez said the percentage is higher in Seattle — about 50,000 of 166,000 homes.

Altogether, Comcast serves about 1.2 million homes in Washington, Kipp said. The company expects to provide about 2 million new devices to those homes as a result of the switch.

Comcast plans to completely phase out expanded basic service eventually, doing away with the midrange tier between bare-bones basic and the full digital package. It's already made the prices of expanded basic and "start digital service" the same — $55.75 per month.

Another competitor Comcast will face starting on Feb. 17 is broadcasting.

All major TV stations in the country will then be offering digital high-definition content over the air free.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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