Monday, August 18, 2014

Concerns in a box

Posted By on Mon, Aug 18, 2014 at 9:00 AM

As the Aug. 26 date for Charter Communications’ switch to an all-digital cable network grows closer, lines at the company’s Third Street location have grown longer. Occasionally, they have even extended out the door and down the sidewalk. The queues are mostly made up of elderly customers who go in empty handed and come out with a small, black box. On a recent afternoon, Gerald Mueller exited the store.

“You live here, you do this,” he says, holding up his new box. “So, here I am.”

The boxes are digital receivers. Not all Charter customers need them, but those whose televisions connect directly to a coaxial cable without passing through a Charter-issued digital device do. In compliance with a Federal Communications Commission rule, Charter is giving the boxes out for free—but they won’t be free forever.

According to Brian Anderson, the company’s director of regional communications, limited basic cable subscribers are allowed two free boxes for two years. (In addition, courtesy of another FCC rule, limited basic subscribers who qualify for Medicaid will get their boxes free for 5 years.) Subscribers to more expansive plans get a free box or two for only one year. For every extra box and for every box after the grace period has ended, Charter will charge customers $6.99 a month. The boxes cannot be bought, only rented in perpetuity.

Though the boxes have created some inconvenience and will ultimately raise cable costs for some customers, the removal of analog signals will free up bandwidth. That means access to more television channels and faster Internet speeds later this year, when the transition is complete. Charter also also plans to reshuffle channels in order to group stations with similar content into blocks.

“There are so many channels now that, trying to find us, I had to get a magnifying glass,” says Joel Baird, Missoula Community Access Television’s general manager, who will see his station moved from channels 7 and 11 to 189 and 190. “Of course I’m bummed.”

At Charter’s Third Street location, Mueller says he’s resigned about the actions of the area’s only cable provider.

“I don’t know if this progress, but this is what’s happening,” Mueller says. “We don’t have a choice about which cable companies to take.”

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