Comcast adds HDTV at usual monthly cost

digital set, box needed

Access: Cable customers in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties can see shows with clearer images and sound. Anne Arundel's will soon.

October 03, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

A new cable box is in town, but you'll need a high-definition television to enjoy its benefits.

Comcast Cable began offering high-definition digital television signals Tuesday in a small, but significant step toward the future of television.

Customers in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties with HDTVs can receive the signals once they get a new set-top box with a high-definition digital tuner, said Tom Williams, Comcast's director of technology for Baltimore metro counties. Anne Arundel customers will get the service this month.

The service is free. The cable box rental is the same $2.50 per month as a standard digital cable box, which can't receive digital television signals.

Williams said customers can come in to exchange their boxes, but said many will prefer to have a technician come to their homes to get all of the cables for video and audio properly installed on their digital television sets.

Digital television, which has patterns of ones and zeros for broadcast signals, can't be received by today's analog sets. But it can provide a much higher-resolution image and sound in a single broadcast (such as HDTV) or multiple programs at lower resolution in the same bandwidth. HDTV owners in Baltimore can receive over-the-air high-definition broadcasts from six local stations.

NBC affiliate WBAL-TV, ABC affiliate WMAR, HBO and Showtime will provide HDTV signals to Comcast. But none of those channels offers HDTV programming all of the time.

`A real need'

Nevertheless, Bill Fine, WBAL's general manager, said the news is fantastic. "There is a real need in the industry to further promote and push digital high-definition television," he said.

How many viewers will be able to take advantage of the new HDTV signals is not known, Fine said. "It's thousands, but definitely not hundreds of thousands" in the Greater Baltimore area.

Only about 3 million digital-ready television sets have been sold across the country, according to the television industry.

WBAL and WMAR show a few prime-time programs in HDTV, including the drama Crossing Jordan, and later, the Tonight Show. Williams said the best way to find out whether pay channels have scheduled an HDTV program is to go to Internet sites (www.hbo.com and www.showtime.com) and look at their schedules.

More content will be on the way as Comcast negotiates with other television stations and networks to get high-definition video feeds. Williams declined to identify the companies with which Comcast is trying to work out deals.

Doubt about deadline

Stalled for years because of squabbling among TV manufacturers, television stations, cable providers and the entertainment industries, the switch to over-the-air digital television was mandated by Congress to occur before 2007, at which point analog TV sets will be all but obsolete - unless they're hooked up to cable or satellite television systems.

The government wants to take back the band of the radio spectrum in which analog television has been broadcast for decades so that it can reuse it for the booming cellular telephone industry.

Before that can happen, however, 85 percent of the homes in a market must have TVs that can receive the signals, and few in the industry believe that the switchover will occur on its original schedule.

Much of the confusion has been over standards. There are nearly 18 formats for HDTV, all of which will be readable by the digital tuner in Comcast's boxes. That confusion has kept much of the cable industry from agreeing to carry HDTV signals. The industry wants one standard format. Meanwhile, television manufacturers and viewers have complained that it's hard to make the case for HDTV unless there's more HDTV content available.

Williams said he has enough bandwidth in the cable pipeline to accommodate more high-definition signals because technology can compress a signal without harming image quality. "We can carry more signals than we could two or three years ago because of the compression," he said.

HDTV is an expensive proposition for consumers. Sets start at about $1,700 - without a digital tuner, which must be bought separately - according to Kevin Luskin, co-owner of The Big Screen Store, an upscale electronics chain in the Baltimore-Washington area. Sets with digital tuners built in cost a little under $3,000, he said.

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