Cable to temporarily pause digital switch

The cable industry's trade association said Wednesday that the industry will take steps to help reduce consumer confusion over TV broadcasters' planned switch to digital TV.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
2 min read

The cable TV industry is pausing its transition to digital TV to reduce consumer confusion over the broadcasters own transition to digital happening early in 2009, according to letters sent to members of Congress Wednesday by the industry's trade association.

Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association also said in the letters that cable operators planned to offer free equipment to analog customers who asked for them for a year. The program will be available to these customers until June.

Cable operators have been migrating their channels from analog to digital for over a decade. Some cable operators are much further along in their migration to digital than others. For example, Cablevision, which serves the New York metropolitan area, has converted about 90 percent of its customers to digital service. Nationwide about 60 percent of cable customers have already switched to digital, according to the NCTA.

But the consumer advocacy group Consumers Union says it has noticed a surge in cable operators across the country migrating analog channels off their basic cable tier to a more expensive digital tier, which requires customers rent cable set top boxes.

The group has argued that cable's timing for moving channels off basic service to a higher tier service has been done deliberately to capitalize on the confusion around the over-the-air TV broadcast digital transition, which takes effect on February 17, 2009.

Earlier this year, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission opened an inquiry into this practice.

Cable operators say the channel moves are merely a coincidence. Like TV broadcasters and cell phone operators, which have also switched to digital transmission, cable is migrating to digital because it's much more efficient than transmitting using analog technology. This means that cable operators can free up more bandwidth to offer services like telephony, video on demand, and more high-definition TV programming.

But in an effort to appease policy makers, the NCTA said in its letters that it's taking additional steps to ensure that consumers are not confused. Specifically, cable operators are proposing that they will institute a "quiet period" starting December 31 and lasting until March 1, in which cable operators will refrain from moving most channels from the analog tier to the digital tier. The industry organization also said cable operators will offer a promotional package of broadcast basic tier to new customers starting on December 31

Once cable operators start moving analog channels to digital, from March 2 to June 30, the NCTA is proposing that cable operators also provide analog customers with free equipment for a year so they will not lose channels.

Union applauded the move. But said it was only a start in helping consumers navigate the confusion surrounding the digital TV transition.