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Maine Madness: Time Warner Cable’s Mandatory Digital Upgrade Still Irking Customers

Phillip Dampier December 5, 2011 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Time Warner Cable 2 Comments

Time Warner Cable’s progression towards all-digital cable continues to spread across Maine as customers in Albion, Augusta, Belgrade, Benton, China, Clinton, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Hallowell, Litchfield, Manchester, Monmouth, Mount Vernon, North Vassalboro, Readfield, Richmond, Rome, Sidney, Vassalboro, West Gardiner and Winthrop lost many of their analog channels last week.

But customers losing AMC, Animal Planet, Cartoon Network, CKSH, CHLT, CNBC, E!, EWTN, GAC, Hallmark Channel, HGTV, History, HSN, INSP, NECN, Ovation, QVC, SyFy, Shop NBC, TCM, TNT, and USA also provoked the loss of something else: patience.

“Cable TV is the only service I pay for that increases my bill and frustration at the same time,” says Augusta Stop the Cap! reader Jeff E. Smith.  “The digital adapter Time Warner sent me was defective right out of the box, and two of my neighbors were also sent defective units that never powered on,” Smith writes.

Time Warner Cable is dramatically reducing the analog cable lineup to make additional room for new digital HD channels and faster broadband speeds.  The company is supplying palm-sized digital adapters for subscribers who don’t have a digital set top box on every television.  Although free until 2014, the boxes will carry a monthly fee of $0.99 each after that.

“The upgrade gives them the chance to cram on more channels we don’t want and more expensive broadband, and yet we have to eventually pay for the equipment,” Smith says. “And it doesn’t even work right.”

Smith’s neighbors have discovered patience-testing lines at some Augusta-area cable stores as customers rushed to obtain the equipment they assumed they didn’t need.

“The neighbor’s mother-in-law doesn’t understand how to use OnStar in her car, so it was no surprise she found out she needed the equipment when most of her favorite channels disappeared,” he adds.  “Time Warner really overestimated the level of understanding customers would have about this after buying new digital-TV’s a few years ago.”

Jim has several suggestions for Time Warner to adopt before the digital upgrade begins its progression across the country:

  1. The equipment should be free of charge and included with your regular monthly service.  You can’t realistically expect to buy Time Warner Cable service without a box for every set after the digital conversion is complete, so just include the equipment;
  2. A better and less intrusive way to manage this would be to install a single digital converter on the outside of the home or in a closet which could provide analog service to every TV not already equipped with a set top box.  That would mean no annoying box on every set in the home and would probably cost less (in time, money, and aggravation);
  3. People assume they are ready for digital cable because they bought digital-ready TV’s after analog television service ceased. Most customers will not read generic letters carefully.  It would be better to send people customized letters telling them they specifically will need the equipment because records indicate additional outlets were installed in the home without corresponding cable set top boxes attached to them.  What are the chances customers are using CableCARD units these days?  Chances are, they’ll need the DTA adapters, so make this clearer.
  4. Don’t you dare put customers through this, increase broadband speeds, and then slap usage caps or usage billing on us!

Currently there are 2 comments on this Article:

  1. Jason! says:

    #2 is not how digital cable works. Since a digital set-top box requests a digital video stream from an upstream “server”, digital cable lines (and in fact all digital TV lines (except maybe satellite)), only carry the currently requested channel(s). There’s no (current) way for an analog STB to “request” a channel from a whole-house digital converter.

  2. Andrew Madigan says:

    I haven’t seen one of the Time Warner DTA devices, but I assume they have their own remote, and they’re only capable of decoding one digital channel at a time. That means you need 1 for each VCR or TV that you want to be able to tune independently.

    Assuming that’s correct, there’s a big difference between decoding one channel and decoding 75 in real time (since the converter has no way to detect what channels the TVs in the house are trying to get). One channel is easy, even two is pretty easy. But I would be shocked if my $2500, brand new desktop was capable of decoding 75 channels at once. That would effectively make it a one-way cable node (TV only, not internet). I’m not in the industry, so I don’t know how much that gear costs, but $5,000 wouldn’t surprise me and neither would $15,000. It would also require running a separate line to any cable modem or cable box in the house, since the break-out of the analog channels would likely interfere with DOCSIS and/or the HD digital channels. Coax cable only has so much bandwidth.

    As for why they’re doing this, those channels take 6 MHz of frequency each, enough to run a 42/30 _dedicated_ internet connection. That means that even if they took the “dumb” approach of streaming TV over IP using DOCSIS, they could run 2 1080i channels in the same space as 1 old NTSC channel. They could also run 6 standard-def channels in the same space. That’s assuming they don’t re-compress the ATSC compressed version (and they usually do).

    Looks like they have at least 65 analog channels right now. That’s probably more than enough bandwidth for every channel they have (including all of the current digital ones) with room to spare. That means it’s a better use of the existing cable lines, and more available bandwidth for RoadRunner. It would be better if cable companies got out of the video business all together and shed themselves of the conflict of interest inherent to an ISP with a video service, but that’s another story.

    Of course the best solution for now would probably be to go to QAM256, that’s supported natively by most recent TVs (many TVs with ATSC support also have QAM support), so far fewer boxes would be required. It’s probably a little less efficient than whatever TW is using, but still much more efficient than analog. Of course they may also be using the boxes to allow them to stop dealing with RF filters on the cable lines – if the box has built-in decryption they can just encrypt all the channels.

    As for the idea that cable boxes “request” upstream channels, that’s SDV. Time Warner is moving away from that because it doesn’t work well. All basic digital channels (that is the digital version of basic cable, and quite of few of the ‘standard’ channels) do not use SDV, at least not in Rochester. I know this because my one-way CableCard device was able to tune them without the assistance of an SDV adapter (before the adapter was delivered), and because level 3 tech support disclosed this specifically.

    Note: Of course FTTH solves all of these things much better.

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