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DTAs Debut in Portland

11/07/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

Comcast has picked Portland, Ore., as the first market where it will broadly distribute free digital-to-analog converters to subscribers, as part of its plan to chop the analog tier down by roughly two-thirds.

Last week, the operator began notifying subscribers in Salem, Ore., that it will eliminate 40 analog channels from the basic lineup as of Jan. 14 and instead make that programming accessible through two free digital-to-analog converter boxes. The rollout will continue across Portland over the next few months.

Comcast is offering all subscribers with at least standard basic cable service — including digital cable customers — two digital-to-analog adapters for no extra cost. (Additional DTAs will be $1.99 per month.)

In addition, standard or expanded basic subs may a non-DVR set-top, through which they'll receive for no extra cost access to more digital channels, video-on-demand and an interactive program guide.

The digital-to-analog boxes, which are smaller and less expensive than regular digital set-tops, are designed to replicate the basic lineup — lacking any VOD, IPG and other advanced digital features. The DTAs allow an operator to reclaim that analog spectrum for other purposes, like DOCSIS 3.0 service or more HD channels. Initially in Portland, Comcast will distribute DTAs from Pace but will eventually offer Thompson and Motorola devices as well.

Nationwide, Comcast has about 70% digital cable penetration, while 15% to 20% of subscribers have standard or expanded basic service. The remaining 10% to 15% of limited basic, or “lifeline,” subscribers don't need any additional equipment, because, even after cutting over a system to “all digital,” Comcast will continue to distribute approximately 20 limited-basic channels in analog depending on the market.

In the initial Portland rollout, most of the DTA boxes will be self-installed, Comcast chief operating officer Steve Burke said on the operator's Oct. 29 earnings call. While “a very material percentage” of the devices will be self-installed, he said, “whether it's 50% or 70%, we are going to need to sort of monitor the initial rollouts.”

In Chicago and Detroit, where Comcast cut down analog tiers using standard set-tops instead of DTAs, the operator saw nearly 75% of affected subscribers opt for self-install kits.

Customers can order via phone or Web site a self-install DTA kit that will be delivered within a week. Alternatively, they can have Comcast install the DTAs for a one-time $15 fee.

Comcast expects to need millions of DTA converters as it aims to begin the all-digital transition in up to 20% of its systems by the end of the year. Multichannel News has reported that Comcast will buy as many as 6 million DTA boxes in 2008.

In the Portland area, the operator is giving 60 days' notice of the changeover, but, in some markets, it may be 30 days'. Customers are being notified through direct mail, bill inserts, channel crawls and cross-channel spots.

September