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December 8, 2008 4:10 PM

FAQs on Comcast digital switcheroo (update 5 - more QAM and Ch. 25-Cspan2)

Posted by Brier Dudley

People had a lot of great questions after reading today's column about Comcast switching its service in Washington to digital, a move that's going to require nearly every customer to add boxes to every one of their TVs.

The switch will happen on Jan. 14, 2009, according to a draft version of Comcast's press announcement. But spokesman Steve Kipp today said that date is incorrect and perhaps refers to a conversion date in Oregon. It will happen in Washington later in 2009 but Comcast isn't providing a specific date yet.

Here's what the "DTA" converter boxes look like, with a TV and in the kit from Comcast, in pictures provided by the company:

adapter_nextto_tv.jpg

adapter_in_kit.jpg

Here are some questions and answers. I forwarded additional questions to Comcast's spokesman and will update this list if I get a response.

Q: What, again, is happening?

A: Comcast is switching channels above 29 to digital format and requiring all televisions to have some sort of cable box to receive those channels. For "expanded basic" customers who don't currently have cable boxes, the company will provide a free box. It will also provide two free adapters that expanded and digital customers can use on additional TVs that don't currently have a box. Limited basic customers -- who only receive channels 2 to 29 -- won't be affected.

Q: What about Channel 25 - C-Span2? (NEW)

A: According to Kipp, Channel 25 "actually is a digital channel and runs unencrypted and can be picked up with a QAM tuner, CableCard or a set top box."

Q: Will picture-in-picture work if a DTA is attached? (NEW)

A: No - PIP won't work with a DTA box attached. In Kipp's words: "Picture in picture will not work with the digital adapter. This is similar to any set top box. So it would be the same for all Verizon FiOS and satellite customers who require their customers to utilize a set top to watch all of their programming."

Q: Is it possible to put a single DTA box on the incoming cable, instead of units on each set? (NEW)

A: Kipp said yes, it would be possible for Comcast to do this outside the house, but it's not going to. (Editorial comment: Maybe this is something for creative amateur cable technicians to try at home.) In Kipp's words: "It is technically possible to put one device on the pole outside the house that could, in theory, act as one box for all the televisions in the house. We didn't pursue this option because it wasn't economically feasible, given that our main goal was to make this change with little or no extra cost to the customer."

Q: Will this affect setups with a Media Center PC connected to a TV? (NEW)

A: Sometimes. Kipp's still gathering info on this, but said Microsoft is now working on it with Comcast. His answer: "From what I understand so far, there are some situations where the digital adapter would work with a media center and some where it would not ... In any event, please keep in mind that each customer also will receive a much more advanced digital set top box at no extra charge in addition to the two digital adapters. The advanced set top box should work with a PC Media Center. In addition, we are working with Microsoft on this issue."

Q: What about TVs with QAM tuners - can they get signals directly from the cable? (NEW)

A: No. "They would need a digital adapter, a standard set top box (DCT) or a CableCard in order to view the channels," Kipp said. "The first CableCard is free with each additional CableCard costing $1.79 per month." This is because the signals will be scrambled/encrypted, and a device from Comcast is needed to descramble them.

(A caveat here: Kipp noted Thursday that Channel 25-C-Span2 is unencrypted and can be received with a QAM tuner, even without a converter device. Also unencrypted, and therefore available with just a QAM tuner in your TV, are Limited Basic channels KCTS Creates, Channel 112; KING-5 Weather Plus, Channel 115; KCPQ Accuweather, channel 116; KIRO Retro Television Network, Channel 117; KCTS V-ME, Channel 119, and "leased access" channel 79. Those network stations are also available now, for free over the air, if you have a digital tuner.) (NEW)

Q: What about public access channels above 29?

A: Comcast must still offer a handful of public access channels in analog format, per its franchise agreements. Tony Perez of Seattle's cable office said that in Seattle, those channels include 75 (KCTS Plus) 76 (UW 2 TV); 77 (SCAN, the public access channel) and perhaps a few more. (See the caveat above).

Q: What about Canadian public television channel 99 (CBUT)?

A: It will remain available to "limited basic" customers, spokesman Steve Kipp said in an email: "In addition to C-SPAN, C-SPAN2, the local broadcast channels and the local government and education channels, the Limited Basic lineup includes: Northwest Cable News, ION, Discovery Channel, KMYQ, KBCB, KHCV, QVC, HSN, KWDK, Hallmark Channel, KTBW, TVW, Univision, The Weather Channel and CBUT."

Kipp said the limited basic channel numbers won't change: "As for channel locations here, they will remain the same so the Limited Basic channels that are in the 75 to 99 range would remain the same."

Q: Will the new small DTA devices work with a TV's remote, or require their own remote?

A: Only with its own remote, Kipp said: "It will work with its own remote at this time. However, it would not surprise me, given the large number of these boxes that will be out in the marketplace across the country, that a universal remote wouldn’t be developed quickly that would work with this device." I'll bet programmable remotes such as the Harmony will also figure out the DTA codes fairly soon.

Q: Will the DTA work with my TiVo?

A: Kipp just passed on this response: "Yes - the DTA is compatible with TiVo devices, pending a software update from TiVo that should be available for TiVo customers next week. The DTA will work with TiVo units in the same manner that existing digital set tops work with TiVo today. Comcast is working closely with TiVo to ensure that TiVo has all the necessary info to ensure a smooth transition for TiVo customers."

Q: A reader asked about per outlet charges. Will that apply to each TV with a Comcast box and new monthly fees per TV in the house?

A: Kipp's response: "Outlet charges would not apply in this case, since the digital adapters and the digital set-top box are offered at no extra charge."

Q: Why is Comcast doing this?

A: That's the billion dollar question. Comcast says it's switching channels above 29 to digital format to free up spectrum for additional high-definition channels and faster Internet service. The company is also steadily phasing out the "expanded basic" tier of service, nudging customers toward digital packages. By putting more cable boxes into homes, the company's also extending the reach of its pay-per-view service and program guide.

Q: What if I'm using a CableCard device on my TV, computer or TiVo?

A: You won't need an additional box if your set has CableCard, which is the equivalent of a very small cable box. (I'm still waiting for Comcast to clarify how the converters will affect setups with the cable going directly into a TiVo or PC.)

Q: What else is changing?

A: As part of the switch, Comcast will give "expanded basic" customers music services and additional channels: Sprout, Discovery Kids, Bloomberg Television, G4, C-SPAN 2 and C-SPAN3, Science Channel, WEtv, KCTS Creates, Q13 Fox First Forecast, Retro-Televison, V-Me and Lifetime Movie Network.

Q: Is this different from the digital converter boxes that the government is promoting and subsidizing with $40 coupons?

A: Yes. Those digital boxes will enable older "rabbit ear" analog TVs to continue receiving over-the-air broadcast signals after broadcasters go all digital on Feb. 17. If you're a Comcast customer, you'll still need one of its devices to get cable channels above 29.

Q: I thought newer TVs with digital tuners wouldn't need any sort of converter box?

A: That was the general message, until Comcast started making this switch. Now it's a two-part message: Newer TVs with digital tuners won't need any sort of converter to receive over-the-air broadcast signals. However, they will require a Comcast device to receive channels above 29 from the cable company.

Q: How much will the Comcast converters cost?

A: Comcast will provide two per household free. Additional units will cost $1.99 per month. Expanded basic customers who don't currently have a standard cable box will also receive one of those for free.

Q: I'm a DirectTV customer. How am I affected?

A: You're not. This change only applies to Comcast customers.

Q: Regarding the Feb. 17 transition to digital over-the-air broadcasting, hasn't that already happened?

A: Yes, partially. Many stations started broadcasting digital signals over the air earlier than required. They're now broadcasting both digital and analog signals. Analog broadcasts will end Feb. 17.

Q: Where can I get more information about this stuff?

A: Comcast is advising customers with questions to call 1-888-COMCAST. More information about the separate, federal Feb. 17 switch to digital over-the-air broadcasting is available at www.dtv2009.gov. The city of Seattle is also answering questions at its Cable Hotline: 206-684-8498.

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