Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Who's Zooming Who on Digital TV?

Because all analog TV broadcasts in the USA will end in exactly one year, we've been hearing a lot about it lately. The ads and articles appearing now try to make it as simple as possible, which is admirable, but it's more complicated than it appears.

Like most people who live in a big city, cable is my only option for TV reception; and because I live in a multi-unit building, the fact that there are two cable companies operating in my area--RCN and Comcast--is moot for me. Our building had to pick one which, as it happens, is RCN.

About a month ago, RCN sent out notices that as of yesterday, it would be converting to an all-digital system, which requires every subscriber to have a cable box on every television. Even people with digital TVs need a box so it doesn't really matter if your TV is analog or digital. You need a box.

Here is how they answer the question of how much the box will cost:

"If you do not have at least one cable box, you will receive your first box (DCT 700) at a special promotional rate, with the monthly fee waived as long as you maintain your RCN service in good standing."

That sentence will become significant later on in what I confess is going to be a pretty long post.

My situation is complicated by the fact that my building buys basic cable at a negotiated, bulk rate and charges us for it as part of our assessment (it's a condo building). We don't have a choice. Even if you don't own a television, you're paying $25 a month for basic cable. Whether or not that is fair or makes sense is a subject of its own and not the subject of this post.

In addition to that, I have cable broadband internet service and some premium channels, such as HBO, for which I get a separate bill directly from RCN. So far so good.

RCN got on my bad side because of the following.

I have two televisions. I've long had a box on one, but ran the cable directly into the other one. Until yesterday, the direct one got all of the local broadcast channels plus a basic tier of cable channels, maybe 60 channels in all, which was fine because that TV is in the bedroom and just about all I use it for is to watch CNN in the morning.

So, because of the conversion, I got a second box. RCN said it would cost a couple bucks a month, but there were "complications," at the end of which I wound up paying something like $30 more a month. That, too, is much more complicated than that and not really what I want to talk about today.

One of my sisters is an engineer at a TV station, so it's kind of funny that all she has at home is one analog television set on an indoor "rabbit ear" antenna, period. She has been investigating this whole digital conversion thing. Did I mention she's also cheap? She's finally accepted that she either needs a convertor or she needs to break down and get cable, or a dish, or something.

In talking about my situation with her, she mentioned that she had read that cable operators are required to provide analog signals to subscribers until 2012. Since that seemed contrary to what RCN was telling me, I did some research.

I also talked to our building manager who mentioned this to our RCN rep. Here is the note I got back from our building manager:

"I spoke to our rep and he is confused by that since the FCC has mandated that all analog transmissions will end in Feb., 2009, so there’s no way for the cable companies 'to guarantee analog cable customers will receive broadcast channels until February 2012,' since there won’t be any signals to receive."

That, obviously, was bullshit on its face, since the cable operator can easily convert digital broadcast signals to analog at the head end and distribute them to subscribers in analog, if they so choose, as they did until yesterday with cable-only stations that come to the cable operator digitally but were converted and distributed in analog.

So I did some more digging. I learned that, while the explanation RCN gave is bullshit on its face, I found the loophole they are using. They’re still manipulating the system, I believe, and misleading customers, but they have a rationale which I might not think is legitimate, or in the spirit of the rules, but it makes what they are doing at least arguably legal.

Last year, the FCC passed rules to ensure that cable subscribers with analog televisions can continue to receive local broadcast stations, what the rules call “mandatory carriage” stations. Here in Chicago there are nine such stations, including the local ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and PBS stations. This requirement applies for three years after the conversion, until February 19, 2012, and may be extended after that. It gives the cable operators two options. Here is the exact wording from the FCC.

"After the broadcast television transition from analog to digital service for full power television stations cable operators must either:

"(i) carry the signals of commercial and non-commercial must-carry stations in analog format to all analog cable subscribers, or

"(ii) for all-digital systems, carry those signals in digital format, provided that all subscribers, including those with analog television sets, that are connected to a cable system by a cable operator or for which the cable operator provides a connection have the necessary equipment to view the broadcast content."

(Source: “In the Matter of Carriage of Digital Television Broadcast Signals: Amendment to Part 76 of the Commission’s Rules, CS Docket No. 98-120, THIRD REPORT AND ORDER AND THIRD FURTHER NOTICE OF PROPOSED RULE MAKING,” Adopted: September 11, 2007; Released: November 30, 2007. Appendix C.)

Here is how FCC Chairman Kevin Martin explained it in his statement accompanying the release of the above rules.

"Importantly, in the item we adopt today, we do not dictate how cable operators must fulfill their statutory requirement to make all broadcast signals viewable to its subscribers. Rather, we give them a choice. Accordingly, the Commission is not forcing consumers to purchase or lease a set top box to continue watching their favorite channels. This decision lies in the hands of the cable company. They can avoid the need for new boxes by choosing to downconvert the digital signal into analog at their headend. This downconversion would permit analog cable subscribers to continue watching broadcast television just as they do today without disruption. Of course, to the extent that a cable system is all-digital, like DBS systems are, all consumers are given a box that allows them to watch all of the broadcast stations."

Where I believe RCN is playing fast and loose with option number (ii) is that they are ensuring that all their subscribers have the "necessary equipment" by converting to all-digital now and forcing everybody to get a box for every television, analog or digital, but by providing one box per household without additional charge, they’re probably legal, so that as of 2/19/09 the requirement of (ii) will be fulfilled.

All cable operators are franchised by the jurisdiction in which they operate, in my case by the City of Chicago, and the city's Department of Consumer Services has a Cable Commission that is supposed to be a watchdog, looking out for consumer interests but, this being Chicago, that's pretty much a joke.

Ultimately, though this doesn't describe me or my situation, the purpose of the FCC rules was to protect low income cable subscribers from being forced into expensive new services just to keep receiving the basic free broadcast stations. Technically, RCN appears to be meeting the letter of the law, though the spirit may be another thing altogether.

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