Charlottesville’s Comcast cable TV problem
by James Kelly
In early March the Cable TV provider in our area, Comcast, initiated a broadcast signal change that has had tragic affects on its subscribers in the City and in the surrounding areas as well. This change converted a previous Analog/Digital broadcast signal that was compatible with all area TVs and VCR/DVD recorders, to an all-digital broadcast signal that is not compatible with any TVs and VCR/DVD recorders in the area. Not compatible that is unless you rent a “Converter Box” from Comcast, to make the signal again compatible with your TVs and VCR/DVD recorders. Comcast advises its subscribers that the change from the previous analog/digital broadcast signal to their new all-digital signal was mandated by the Federal Government (the FCC). That claim is not substantiated by the FCC document downloaded from the FCC websites. The FCC suggests that this signal change is motivated for business reasons.
The change in Comcast’s broadcast signal has adversely affected subscribers TVs, both older analog and the newer digital TVs, and every VCR/DVD recorder in use in the City and surrounding areas. The ones most significantly affected are those that have subscribed to one of Comcast’s Basic Tier Service packages. Nearly all of the basic tier channels in these packages are now denied to paying subscribers, unless you pay Comcast more money for the use of this new “Converter Box”, a new electronic signal de-coding device.
Access to Higher Tier Channel Packages such as movie and pay-per-view channels, and paid sporting events, have always required a converter box (Set Top Box), and that may well be perfectly reasonable. But the requirement for that set top box, associated with that level of entertainment, was selected by those subscribers. The new requirement for this new restrictive, intrusive and costly Converter Box, on Basic Tier Channels, was not selected by subscribers and is being imposed upon subscribers for “business reasons”.
The root of the problem is that when Comcast changed its broadcast signal it selected for use an all-digital signal that requires subscribers to use this new piece of Comcast’s custom equipment, the Converter Box. In lieu of selecting a compatible digital signal that digital TVs or VCR/DVD recorders could access, without a costly Converter Box, Comcast elected to broadcast on a non-compatible signal that now REQUIRES that all subscribers, regardless of their Channel Tier selection, to pay Comcast more money. This new Converter Box is COSTLY to Comcast’s subscribers in many ways, not just in dollars. More about those costs below.
Comcast did give subscribers 2 or 3 Converter Boxes for free, and that was nice, maybe. But there are many homes with larger families that have more than 2 or 3 connected TVs. Now, every TV you have in use in your home over the 2 or 3 allowed by Comcast, is costing subscribers more money. And even if we do not have a large family, a functional TV in various rooms as we choose is our right, not subject to Comcast’s benevolence.
In the first place, the very notion of additional costs to your family for the number of TVs you use in your home is unconscionable! As subscribers we are entitled to the use of cable TV service TO our homes, using as many TVs as we feel appropriate for our family and entertainment likes. To now pay for cable TV service to your home, PLUS now an additional cost for the number of TVs in use (for more than Comcast thinks you should have) in your home, is septic. I am concerned that next there may well be a cost to the subscriber based on the size of the TVs you use in your homes. I mean why not, if Comcast can charge you more for each TV over a certain number that they decide, why not charge you more for larger TVs? The new cost-of-service model (cost to the home Plus Cost per TV) changes the very fabric and concept of cable TV service costs in our area and the State as this writer sees it. Anything even resembling charging subscribers for the number of TVs in use in your homes should be vigorously resisted by everyone that has Cable TV service from this provider, regardless of how many TVs you have in use.
And in the second place, the above cost issue IS NOT EVEN THE WORST PART …………… The worst part is that even if you agree to pay Comcast more money for the excessive number of TVs you use in your homes, or even if you have fewer than 3 TVs, you still can not freely access the Basic Tier TV channels for which you are already paying. Not without this new Converter Box now required by Comcast, specifically because Comcast elected to now broadcast its Cable TV service on a non-compatible signal for its Basic Tier Channels. The purpose of this Converter Box is twofold; 1. To un-scramble the new all-digital broadcast signal such that your TV can use that signal, and 2. Worse yet, to restrict your channel access to one channel at a time out of the Box, not the multi-channel access you need for your digital TVs Picture-in-Picture (PIP) feature and VCR/DVD recorders programming features to work as they are designed. You bought these TVs and VCR/DVDs for those features.
At this point I have to explain how your VCR/DVDs and digital TVs work.
- Digital TVs, especially those with the Picture-in-Picture (PIP) feature, requires multi-channel (more than one at a time) access to function as designed. One channel for the main viewing screen and another channel for the smaller inset screen. That feature of your digital TVs will not function without access to any two or more of the channels, which you are paying to receive. Comcast’s “Converter (RESTRICTION) Box”, prevents and denies you the use of this feature on your TV.
- VCR/DVD recorders are a bit more complicated, but the same principle applies. All VCR/DVD recorders are designed to 1. Record a program you are currently watching (needing only one channel access), and 2. Record a program on one channel while you watch a program on another channel (needing at least two-channel access), and 3. Program and record multiple programs on different days and on different channels (requiring access to all of your Tier Channels).
Comcast is denying you the right to access and use all of the channels that you are already paying for, either one at a time or more than one simultaneously as you may choose. Comcast’s Converter (RESTRICTION) Box denies subscribers the use the programming features of your VCR or DVD recorders, almost completely destroying their functionality, and denies you the use of your digital TVs Picture-in-Picture feature. This writer does not believe that Comcast has the right to deny us that access, but has done so by the new all-digital broadcast frequency that they selected, for business reasons ?
There may be some that would argue that customers could switch to using a DVR or TiVo to record programs for viewing later, but not so fast here. Those devices record on a hard drive, a computer-like system, and not on a “hard-medium” such as a VCR tape or DVD disk, as VCR/DVD recorders do. And while these DVR/TiVo devices have a lot of features and a lot of storage space, they eventually run out of storage space. Eventually you will have to delete something to record something else. Not an even comparison to those who enjoy recording and saving programs they particularly like on a permanent disk or tape. Not an option for VCR/DVD owners.
One more cost issue here. DVRs and TiVo’s that will work on Comcast’s digital signal can only be rented from guess who, Comcast! More money for Comcast, less rights for you.
It should be again noted here that the original cable channel broadcast signal before March 2012 included two components. One component was an ANALOG signal that was used to broadcast primarily the Basic Tier channels, such as TNT, AMC, HIST, USA, TCM, Bravo, Golf, DISC, Food, BET, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and many others, and a DIGITAL signal component that broadcast the digital versions of some of the preceding channels. Our TVs were able to scan the incoming cable signals, analog or digital, isolate and use channels within our specific Tier of Service either one channel at a time if we choose or more than one channel simultaneously if our TVs or VCR/DVD recorders needed them. Access and use of either the previous ANALOG or DIGITAL signals carrying these Basic Tier channels did not require a Converter Box.
And today as well, at this very moment, Comcast broadcasts many digital channel signals for such channels as FOX, CBS, NBC, ESPN, or ABC and others, which do not need a Converter box to access and view. We are free to access and use the PIP feature on our digital TVs and full programming features on our VCR/DVD recorders, without a restrictive Converter Box, but only on these digital channel signals! We are denied free access and unrestricted use of other Basic Tier channels like TNT, AMC, HIST, USA, TCM, Bravo, Golf, DISC, Food, BET as previously noted. Again, for business reasons??
The above then begs the question; If there were unrestrictive and perfectly compatible digital channel signals available for subscribers use in Comcast’s pre-March 2012 broadcast (with no Converter Box requirement), and if there are unrestrictive and perfectly compatible digital channel signals available for subscribers use in Comcast’s broadcast at this time, today, (with no Converter Box requirement), then why is Comcast denying unrestricted access and use of certain Basic Tier channels, that we are paying for already? Why did Comcast select a restrictive digital broadcast signal that would require a restrictive and costly Converter Box, when non-restrictive signals are available? For business reasons?
In addition to the restrictive characteristics of Comcast’s new broadcast signal and Converter Box, we have to now use two Remote Control devices. Using two remotes, one to operate the new Converter Box / TV sound and channel functions and one to operate the other advanced features of digital TVs, is only an unnecessary inconvenience to some. But to the handicapped, impaired and to seniors, this new “two remote” requirement is confusing and a serious burden. It will cause most to abandon the use of the special digital TV features they paid for and enjoy, or try to find someone that can manipulate these devices for them. Really unfair to this interest group !!
And finally, the new digital signal change and the new required Converter box costs subscribers more in electrical use. While this new box is small and relatively innocuous on its own, it is plugged-in and operational 24/7 and drawing power. This increases your energy usage regardless of how little the additional use might cost. When multiplied by the number of boxes you have in your home, which you would not need if Comcast had selected a compatible broadcast signal that needed no Converter Box, multiplied by the number of homes that have these boxes (virtually every home in the area)? This additional power drain on our electrical grid may not be a significant cost issue, but it is the unnecessary energy use that is the issue, not the cost. This new requirement is not Green and is not good for our environment. For Comcast’s business reasons ??
As noted above, the cost of the change imposed on its subscribers by their signal broadcast changes is far more than just dollars. The cost to you is in your being denied your right to use your cable TV service, your channels that you pay for, as you choose to use them. You are being denied the right to use your TV or VCR or DVD recorders features as they are designed to be used. Our seniors and the impaired are being required to use two remote control devices to access any of the advanced features of their digital TVs, and Comcast’s new Converter Box costs you more in electrical use. AS stated above, the additional use of electricity for these new boxes, and the additional drain on our energy grid, may not a major cost issue, but that is not the point. The additional and unwarranted energy use is the point. This is bad.
In our area Cable Television and other cable services (Internet and Phone) are provided to the City of Charlottesville under the terms of a Franchise Agreement with the City This Franchise Agreement gives Comcast something closely akin to a monopoly over cable TV service to our residents, as there is no other ground-line (non-satellite, non-fiber) cable provider available to us. This is good for Comcast but not so good for the residents of the City and other surrounding areas. In other conventional competitive business situations when a consumer does not like the service from one provider, they simply find another service provider. No so in the case of Cable TV Services. There is no other Cable TV (non-satellite, non-fiber optic) provider available to us. We have “Comcast”.
As I read the terms of that Franchise Agreement, provision FA 5.01.F says Grantee shall, to the extent reasonably possible, engineer its system so as to provide all off-air broadcast, satellite-delivered, optically delivered, digital, analog and other signals such that signal impairments, degradation or other problems (are) not noticeable to Subscribers. The broadcast signal change that Comcast has implemented, with the requirement for this new piece of custom equipment, is far beyond “noticeable”. It is restrictive, intrusive, and burdensome and denies access to use TV channels that we pay for, either all at once or one at a time as we would choose. With other digital signals available for use that do not require a Converter Box, the part about “to the extent reasonably possible” was ignored.
The referenced Franchise Agreement (FA) permits subscribers to file COMPLAINTs with the City concerning our cable TV service, and this writer has filed such a complaint, with no response yet from the City. And, following are the addresses at which you need to file your own COMPLAINT as you see necessary:
Mr. Maurice Jones
City of Charlottesville
Room 214, City Hall
605 E. Main Street
Charlottesville, VA 22901
Mr. Craig Brown
City of Charlottesville
605 E. Main Street
Charlottesville, VA 22901
If you object to the changes that Comcast has implemented and feel those changes to be intrusive and burdensome, say that to the City. If you object to being denied access to channels that your pay for, either one at a time or more than one at a time as needed for your PIPs and VCR/DVD recorders to function as designed, say that to the City. If you object to the additional energy use on our grid brought about by the new Converter Box, say that to the City. If you feel the need to use two remote control devices to operate your TVs and recorders to be burdensome to you, your elderly family members or others, advise the City.
If you care to communicate with others that also object to this intrusive change, you can use email@example.com, but do not let this dissuade you from filing your own COMPLAINT and let the City know how you are impacted if they allow this intrusion to continue and escalate.
Thanks for your attention and for getting involved. To paraphrase what Edmund Burke said in 1770: “all that is needed for bad things to succeed is that good people do or say nothing”. So, say and do something, or our Cable TV Provider gets to do as it pleases.
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