Comcast makes room for more digital by dropping some analog channels

Robert Benefield, project manager for digital migration at Comcast, holds one of the boxes that some customers will need for the company’s expansion of its digital channels.

The conversion to a digital world marches on.

Comcast, the largest cable TV provider in the Sacramento area, will stop providing about 50 channels in analog format by the end of March. The move lets the company increase its digital offerings, including coveted high-definition channels, but means thousands of customers will have to install new equipment to maintain their current level of service.

“The whole world has been swept along in this digital tsunami,” said Comcast spokesman Bryan Byrd. “The customer continues to want faster Internet speeds and more channels.”

Those who subscribe to the lowest level of cable TV service – known as limited basic – don’t have to do anything; they will continue to receive the same service without new equipment. Nor is any change necessary for TVs that already receive digital service.

But new set-top boxes will be required for subscribers who want to continue receiving mid-level service – known as expanded basic – on all or some of their TVs. Those who don’t add the new equipment before Comcast shuts off the analog spigot will be able to receive only the 30 or so channels offered in the limited basic package, losing such offerings as CNN, Disney Channel and Lifetime.

The new boxes – a large one for a main TV and smaller ones for additional sets – will be available starting next Friday. Comcast will hook them up for $15.99, or customers can pick them up at a Comcast office and do it on their own. Rates will not increase as part of the “digital migration,” though an extra monthly charge could come if more than three TVs require boxes.

To get the word out, Comcast will mail letters, call customers and roll out TV screen crawls notifying viewers of the switch, Byrd said. Some 60,000 boxes are stowed at a Natomas warehouse ready to go, he said. If supplies run low, more shipments will arrive until the project is completed.

Comcast is confident subscribers will consider the changeover worth the trouble.

In addition to improved picture and sound quality, the company said, expanded basic customers will get 30 new channels, including Comcast SportsNet Plus, Country Music Television, MSNBC and Style. On the TV with the main box, they will gain access to on-demand and pay-per-view content, as well as digital music channels.

The conversion is unrelated to last June’s nationwide Digital Broadcast Transition that switched network programming to digital.

Comcast officials said the switch can be accomplished with minimum disruption.

“We’ve tried to make it easy and simple for people,” Byrd said.

But conversion efforts in other Comcast cities have had their share of headaches.

In Atlanta, which Comcast converted last summer, news reports quoted subscribers complaining of poor service and problems melding existing equipment with the new technology.

Atlanta-based telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan said he saw that frustration up close. One of the biggest problems is that Comcast is moving too fast, he said.

“I think it’s the right move, but they should stagger it, allow customers to get used to the idea,” he said.

Kagan predicts a repeat of what he saw in Georgia.

“Some customers hook up their systems easily, others don’t have the ability to do that. All of a sudden, they have no TV signal and they’re standing in a long line to get their boxes,” he said. “When you rush it, many customers get ticked off.”

Deborah Legan, a Comcast subscriber in suburban Atlanta, said getting her VCR to work with the new equipment was a “nightmare.”

She said she spent 10 hours on a Sunday and two more on a Monday – much of it connected by phone to a Comcast technician – getting everything to work together. Her VCR still can’t do some of the things it used to do.

“If I could get my old service back, I would be the first in line,” she said.

Even with the possibility of customer backlash, the Comcast move makes sense in an evolving market increasingly focused on digital services, Kagan said.

The Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto television market has more than 1.4 million households, according to Nielsen Media Research. Cable has about 53 percent of the market. Comcast is the largest cable provider, claiming about 350,000 customers in the Sacramento area alone.

But the company is beset by competition from satellite services like DirecTV and Dish Network, Internet-based services offered by AT&T and Verizon, and other cable carriers.

The battle is focusing on capturing customers with a bundle of digital services that includes telephone, Internet access and high-definition TV. Companies routinely tout their large number of high-definition channels and fast Internet speeds in ad campaigns.

“Companies are fighting the bundle battle in major markets,” Kagan said. “It’s a battle that’s shaping up over the next several years and more customers are going to see it.”

Dropping analog channels allows Comcast to free up bandwidth to offer more digital services and high-definition options. Each analog signal dropped makes room for 12 digital channels or three high-definition channels, Byrd said.

A number of other Comcast systems will be converted by June, including those in Chico, Fresno, Grass Valley, Marysville-Yuba City, Merced, Modesto, Stockton, Tracy, Tulare and Visalia.

Some Comcast customers – mainly those with expanded basic cable – will need to get a set-up kit like this one to make the changeover. They’ll be available starting Friday.