Converter box is back for cable TV subscribers New technology, laws driving change

April 04, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Due to an editing error, some editions of The Sunday Sun included an inaccurate figure for the cost of a Comcast Cablevision study of revamping Baltimore County's cable system. The study will cost $250,000.

The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

Just when you thought you were rid of that clunky old cable TV converter, Comcast Cablevision is taking Baltimore County subscribers back to the future.

The box is back.

Starting this month, Comcast is requiring that all Home Team Sports subscribers get a new "addressable" converter box. Those sports fans will join the thousands of subscribers who discovered while snowbound by the Blizzard of '93 that they also needed the converter box to order pay-per-view movies.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

About 35,000 of Comcast's 170,000 subscribers will have addressable converters, which allow specific programs to be sent to individual homes.

While they've been around for years, addressable converters will become far more common over the next decade, thanks to last year's cable television law. That same legislation pushed the Federal Communications Commission to reinstate local and federal price controls on cable TV operators in noncompetitive markets Thursday.

While regulation may ultimately save viewers $2 to $3 a month, the advent of "addressable" technology -- and a federal mandate to make it available everywhere -- may have a far larger impact on viewers' relationships with their TV sets.

That technology promises hundreds of channels, individualizedviewing menus, more flexible viewing schedules, teleconferencing and two-way communications with TV "town meetings," home shopping networks and other services.

Before it can take advantage of that new technology, Comcast must deal with some problems. The company has reached the limits of its aging Baltimore County hardware, with a maximum of 45 channels.

While it decides how to revamp its system, the company is trying to squeeze out another channel or two by asking the county's three community colleges to lease back at least one of their little-watched channels.

Stephen Burch, Comcast's regional vice president, said that "we weren't real thrilled" by the government's push toward addressable converter boxes. "It's not exactly consumer-friendly," he said.

But even the newest TVs can't handle the 500-channel, two-way cable systems that are on the way, and, "You won't be able to use this technology without a converter," Mr. Burch said.

In Baltimore City, United Cable's relatively new system has always required addressable converter boxes.

The boxes are also being put in place in other cable systems in the region. About half the homes served by Howard Cable Associates in Howard County and Jones Intercable in Anne Arundel County have them.

Cheaper, more convenient

Addressable boxes are different from the converters people have used for years with older TV sets that aren't cable-ready. Addressable technology allows the cable operator to send a coded signal that will "wake up" an individual box so that it can receive a premium channel or pay-per-view movie. It's cheaper and more convenient than sending a serviceman to install HTS or HBO.

Cable companies like the new box because it makes it harder to steal premium cable services and easier to catch those who do. It also provides better picture quality.

All this comes at a price, however. First, Comcast has a big investment in the $300 boxes. There's no rental fee, but there is a refundable $25 deposit. Second, the box makes your TV's remote control useless. You can buy a universal remote that will run the converter box for as little as $25. Or you can use a Comcast remote, which is free now but will cost $4.25 a month after October.

Third, while you're watching a channel that's available only through the converter box, you can't tape another channel unless you wire up a second TV and converter.

So far in Baltimore County, only pay-per-view movies and HTS require the addressable converter. And because of the cost of buying more boxes, Comcast officials say they have no plans to make the box a requirement for additional channels.

Meanwhile, Comcast has commissioned a $25,000 study on how to cope with the demand for more channels.

The company may have to recable all or part of the county and get new equipment and electronics at headquarters, Mr. Burch said. That could take up to five years and cost up to $100 million. The capital will come from investors, not from higher rates, he said.

Talks with colleges

In the meantime, customers have suggested using one of the three channels now controlled by the community colleges -- 6, 17 and 20.

"Two years ago I sent a letter . . . asking if they would be interested in leasing to us two of the three channels," Mr. Burch said. The colleges could consolidate and improve their programming with money from the lease, he said. Face-to-face discussions are now under way.

"I'm not asking to take these over forever," Mr. Burch said. "In a few years, I'm not going to need the channels anyway."

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