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RCN dropping analog channels

Customers will need converter boxes as cable firms switch to digital

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / June 14, 2008

Cable companies battling for television customers are increasing their high-definition offerings and scaling back analog channels, in a move that means some customers will need additional hardware to tune in.

Next month, RCN Corp. begins a nine-month shift to all-digital, dropping its lineup of analog channels in the Boston market to make room for more digital channels. Verizon Communications Inc. began to go all-digital in May, with plans to offer 150 HD channels by year-end. Comcast Corp. said it will continue to offer analog service to customers as it pushes toward digital offerings. But in Boston and Brookline, the company increased its capacity by offering only basic analog channels, and next week, it will launch five new HD channels in both places.

Depending on the provider, that means subscribers used to plugging a TV directly into coaxial cable may now need a digital converter box for every TV in their house, or else the sets will go dark. Verizon provides up to three free digital converter boxes to analog customers. RCN will offer a free converter box for each customer without one and charge $2.95 per month for each additional box. Because Comcast will continue to transmit analog channels, a cable box is not required.

The bigger effect of the shift may be on customers' second or third televisions. In Massachusetts, 80 percent of RCN's customers already have a converter box, according to Richard Wadman, RCN's Boston general manager. In New England, over 70 percent of Comcast's customers are digital cable customers.

Even so, those who have a set-top box or cable card on one set may have other TVs that are plugged directly to a coaxial cable. Those TVs receive analog channels, or - if the sets have built-in digital tuners - any digital channels not encrypted.

"That extra set that is getting 60 channels - that number is decreasing slowly," said Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Research Group, a telecom research firm.

The federal government has tried to educate consumers about a different digital transition - the end of over-the-air analog broadcasts. By next February, people who watch TV with an antenna will need a digital converter box. The government is offering $40 coupons to subsidize the cost of the con verter box. A study by Leichtman Research released this month showed 84 percent of US adults were aware that over-the-air broadcasts were switching to digital transmissions.

In contrast, the shifts occurring at cable providers are driven by competition, and may take customers by surprise. Cable companies competing with each other and with satellite providers are scaling back analog offerings to make room for more efficient digital programming. Each analog channel is the equivalent of three HD or 10 standard-definition digital channels. As the number of HD televisions in homes continues to increase, companies seek an edge through the variety and number of HD channels they offer.

That edge could be especially important for cable upstart RCN, which lost cable customers in Massachusetts last year. But the end of analog cable could rankle some RCN customers, because of another change that comes with the transition. An RCN subscriber with a type of built-in digital tuner in a TV could until now watch digital programming just by connecting the TV to a coaxial cable. But as the company eliminates analog channels, it is also encrypting digital channels so that a box or cable card needs to be used. RCN charges $1.50 a month for the cards. Comcast encrypts the vast majority of its digital channels, as does Verizon.

"For people who have multiple TV sets, this is a costly process," said Edgar Dworsky of Somerville, a frustrated RCN customer who runs ConsumerWorld.org.

Derek Atkins also of Somerville said adding enough HD boxes to bring programming to all of his TVs would add $50 to his monthly bill. With the free cable box from RCN, he wouldn't be able to receive the HD channels that he is already receiving without a box, so he plans to switch to satellite.

"It's really annoying now that I'm able to get more channels by unplugging my RCN," Atkins said. "I can plug an antenna in the TV and get more HD channels than they're giving me."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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