HTS in box coming to Comcast Converters needed in Baltimore Co.

February 12, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

Orioles games will be more expensive and less convenient for Baltimore County residents this season -- even if they stay home.

Comcast Cablevision of Baltimore County, adopting the practice most area cable companies, has changed the requirements for its 20,000 Home Team Sports subscribers. HTS carries Orioles games and other sports.

Starting April 1, Baltimore County subscribers will need an "addressable" converter box to catch HTS. (Addressable boxes are those that can receive pay-per-view or other special programming.) A refundable, $25 deposit will be charged for each converter. The boxes also render useless for HTS your television's remote control.

Comcast, which also provides cable to Harford County, charges more for HTS than any other area cable company. The minimum Comcast package that includes HTS costs more than $40 a month -- about twice as much as in Anne Arundel County and a third more than in Baltimore City. Comcast is the only area company to charge a deposit for converters.

Comcast said the units will eliminate the fuzzy pictures that have bedeviled the system with the old, cable-mounted filters.

"I think when people get the first few games and see the picture quality improvement, they will see it's well worth it," said Curt Pendleton, general manager of Comcast in Baltimore County.

The boxes also will lessen cable theft and make pay-per-view events more convenient for people to buy, although those weren't the primary factors in the company's decision to change the service, Pendleton said.

The deposit, which will not pay interest, is necessary to protect VTC the company's investment, he said. Boxes cost $200 to $250 each, he said. Old converter boxes can be exchanged for the new ones without paying a deposit. A box will be needed for

each television receiving HTS.

Most television remote control devices will not work with the boxes, requiring the purchase of a universal remote if a subscriber wants to switch between HTS and other channels. Viewers with cable-ready TVs will be able to switch the boxes off and use their regular remote controls when not watching HTS.

Universal remotes cost about $30. Comcast will rent them for $4.25 a month, though that fee is being waived through October as part of an introductory offer for HTS subscribers.

The switch to converters also makes it tougher to steal the service: Bootleg descrambling filters no longer will work for HTS broadcasts.

Notices have been sent to customers, explaining where to pick up the converters.

Nearly every cable company in the area requires converter boxes for HTS and, sometimes, for any service at all. Nationwide, the industry is moving rapidly toward the devices to expand the number of channels available, market pay-per-view events and reduce cable theft.

But there are alternative systems available, including devices that mount outside the home and would not interfere with remote controls, said Joseph Van Eaton, a Washington lawyer who represents a number of communities nationwide, including Montgomery County, on issues related to cable regulation.

But those systems tend to be more expensive, and cable companies favor converter boxes, he said.

For now, he said: "It's a case of trade-offs. It provides better pictures, but it renders other electronic equipment useless. It's not sure, from a consumer's standpoint, whether it's a trade-off they would make."

The Baltimore County Telecommunications Advisory Panel, which advises the county council on cable matters, was informed about the coming changes, said panel chairman Leonard Sacks.

"The panel was concerned that there was going to be an adjustment and it had an economic impact or that the subscriber would be somewhat inconvenienced," Sacks said. The panel is discussing with Comcast some billing alternatives and other ways to lessen the impact on consumers, he said.

The panel has no authority under existing law to prohibit the company's actions, although that may change with pending re-regulation. Generally, he said, consumers seem satisfied with Comcast's service.

HTS rather would have its service as part of basic, but is glad to see any improvement in picture quality, said spokesman Scott Broyles. Of the 250 cable companies that carry HTS from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, all but about a dozen in the Washington-Baltimore area provide it with basic service, he said.

Baltimore County's HTS charge, $15.99, is among the highest in the network's system, Broyles said.

"We're now in negotiations with Comcast to make us more available and affordable," he said.

But Pendleton defended the company's fees, saying: "The cost of a month's service is probably the same as having two people go to a game."

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