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Originally published Sunday, December 15, 2013 at 8:10 PM

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FCC is enabler when Comcast slaps on high-def box fees

The regulators bought Comcast’s lame request, including the ludicrous claim that DTA boxes are better for the environment because they may reduce service-truck traffic.


Seattle Times technology columnist

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At every stage in Comcast’s switch to a digital cable system over the past few years, all sorts of people ask what’s happening to their TV and what can be done.

The latest round of questions came last month when the company cut off access for basic subscribers in Washington who hadn’t yet added some sort of cable box to every one of their TVs.

After looking into the issue a bit further, I have some bad news.

First, there’s not much that can be done about the hated “DTA” converter boxes that were forced upon basic-cable subscribers. The first few boxes are free, but they interfere with video recorders, require an extra remote and outlet, and downgrade picture quality on modern TVs.

This mostly affects people looking for bare-bones cable who don’t want to pay for hundreds of channels and rent a full-blown Comcast cable box.

It’s particularly galling because most of them upgraded not too long ago to digital-ready TVs with “QAM” tuners that shouldn’t require extra hardware, especially not a gadget that reduces their TV’s capability.

West Seattle resident Brad Chrisman passed along a tip for making the most of the situation.

After complaining to Comcast about the squished, square image the DTA provided on his TV, the company suggested using the TV’s “wide” setting, which stretches out the picture horizontally.

“The result is pretty good but it’s really a distortion of a distortion, and not as good as the picture I was getting with the QAM tuner,’’ he said via email.

Comcast finally began offering high-definition DTA boxes in this area recently but they cost extra — $2 per month, plus a one-time, $10 “tech fee.”

Even more upsetting is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enabled this hose job. The regulators bought Comcast’s lame request, including the ludicrous claim that DTA boxes are better for the environment because they may reduce service-truck traffic.

People around the country have complained to no avail.

“It’s just silly and it’s self-serving; there’s just no rational basis for it,” Lee Selwyn, a Boston telecom-regulations expert, told me last week. “I think it’s a real failure on the part of the FCC for letting that happen.”

Selwyn consults with governments and companies on FCC issues so he wrote a particularly persuasive complaint to the agency last summer, pointing out how the DTA policy is contrary to the FCC mission and suggesting specific ways to address the situation.

The FCC never replied. Selwyn did hear from a Comcast representative, but he still dropped cable service from his Boston-area home, where he now uses a $30 antenna to get broadcast TV.

DTAs represent a shift in policy by the FCC. Since the late 1960s, the agency favored isolating hardware and service requirements, Selwyn explained. With the wireline phone business, this opened up competition among hardware-makers and gave consumers choices about what devices they could use with their service.

As the switch to digital cable approached, TV-makers were producing sets with standard QAM tuners that could directly handle digital cable signals and consumers invested heavily in these new devices.

Then in 2012, the FCC sided with Comcast’s request to encrypt every channel — even basic ones — and mandate the use of its descrambling hardware (a DTA, CableCard device or full cable box) on every TV in customers’ homes.

“Comcast just makes this decision, the FCC blithely goes along with it for no justifiable reason, and all of a sudden they’ve created this enormous inconvenience and cost,” Selwyn said.

I asked the FCC if it might reconsider, especially since it’s now reviewing changes to cable TV service standards. A spokeswoman told me the agency won’t comment “because it’s an open proceeding that is still under consideration.”

Regulation of cable companies partly falls to local municipalities that negotiate franchise agreements and lease space along their rights of way.

Cities haven’t had much luck limiting rate increases beyond the most basic tier of service. But the arrangements are lucrative. Seattle, for instance, collects nearly 5 percent of Comcast’s gross sales in the city, plus a 10 percent sales tax.

Seattle is gearing up to renegotiate its agreement with Comcast. The process will take a few years and provide an opportunity for the public to weigh in on the DTA issue, though it’s not clear that the city has the authority or the willpower to battle the box.

Besides, people will soon have other, more pressing gripes about Comcast.

Such as a new $1.50 per month “Broadcast TV Fee” the company plans to start charging in July, to cover its rising costs, including higher costs to retransmit broadcast channels.

Spokesman Steve Kipp said it’s breaking out the fee on bills to be transparent about its costs and following an approach taken by other cable companies recently.

But don’t think Comcast is being a complete Grinch.

To offset the new fee, Comcast won’t increase rates on Limited Basic or Digital Preferred services in 2014. Rate increases on other video services “will be lower than they would have been without the Broadcast TV Fee.”

With the company in such a generous mood, it’s worth asking whether you can swap a standard-definition DTA for a high-def model with no monthly charge, other than the one-time, $10 “tech charge.”

To paraphrase Mr. Chrisman, the extortion for a distortion can only go on so long.

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



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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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