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MI: Comcast pushes public access into digital tier

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Created 12/10/2007 - 7:27am

from: Grand Rapids Press [1]

Comcast pushes public access into digital tier
Friday, December 07, 2007
By Chris Knape

GRAND RAPIDS -- Some Comcast subscribers may be seeing black next month when a handful of their channels move out of their regular lineup.

On Jan. 15, the Grand Rapids area's largest cable provider will shuttle its public access, education and government broadcasts from analog cable channels 24-28 to its digital system somewhere around channel 900.

It's a move akin to sending these locally produced channels to "Siberia," potentially eliminating thousands of viewers, one local media producer said.

Most TVs will require a digital cable converter box to receive the channels because they lack built-in tuners capable of converting the digital signal into a picture.

Comcast is offering one free converter box per household for the first 12 months to help with the transition. Additional boxes will cost $4.20 per month.

The affected channels in the city of Grand Rapids include GRTV, Livewire, the Grand Rapids Information Network and channels dedicated to K-12 education and higher education.

The move took Grand Rapids' cable administrator and the executive director of the Community Media Center, which produces programming for the channels, by surprise.

"I think it's unconscionable," said Laurie Cirivello, executive director of the Community Media Center. "It's a sad situation, and the process that has occurred to inform us and to handle the transition has been done very poorly from Comcast."

Cirivello said the move essentially sends the broadcasts to channel "Siberia."

The move was made without consulting local officials, she said.

Grand Rapids Cable Administrator Jon Koeze said it's an example of the impact of the recent deregulation of the state's cable industry.

Michigan's 2006 cable TV deregulation bill essentially stripped the ability of local governments to enforce franchise agreements that typically required cable operators to carry certain channels on their analog -- or lowest-cost -- tiers.

"The only thing the state law has done is to line the pockets of the cable company," Koeze said. "It hasn't brought competition to West Michigan. That's not to say in the future it won't."

Comcast officials said more than half of its customers in Michigan already receive some sort of digital service. They said more than 60 percent of customers get a digital service in the Detroit area but would not give a percentage for West Michigan.

Comcast spokesman Patrick Paterno explained the reasoning behind the change: "We're now going to be able to provide enhanced video and audio by using an advanced digital delivery system."

While eliminating channels from its analog service will free up channel space, Comcast officials said there are no additional services being launched as a result of moving the public access stations.

Comcast has made similar moves around the country, expanding digital and high-definition services while scaling back offerings of analog channels, which require more space on the cable network to deliver.

Earlier this year, the company eliminated C-SPAN2 and Oxygen from its analog cable offering while adding five more digital channels and 12 more high-definition channels.

Louise Beller, Comcast's senior director of public affairs and communications, said moving the channels is part of the ongoing transition to digital offerings. She said the company has no plans to drop other analog services at this time.

Koeze said analog cable's demise is likely only a few years away.

"I think the PEG channels are the easiest ones to boot because the other ones have contractual obligations (Comcast) has to meet," he said.

Comcast's move is not related to the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline that requires broadcasters to turn off their over-the-air analog signals in favor of their digital signals.

At that time, those who use antennas to receive their television signals will require a new TV with a digital tuner or a digital-to-analog conversion box.

Cable operators can continue to offer analog cable service as long as they choose under current regulations.

Charter Communications, West Michigan's second-largest cable provider, has no plans to move PEG channels from analog systems in the markets it serves -- yet.

"We're kind of in this transition phase between analog and digital anyway, so I think eventually you'll see similar changes," said Tim Ransberger, a spokesman for Charter.

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