Confusion over cable and DTV

November 26, 2008 7:13:28 AM PST
Consumer complaints about how cable companies are handling the switch to digital television have prompted a government investigation. Some consumers have lost channels on their basic service, while others tell us their televisions have gone to black.

We've been telling you when the DTV switch happens next year, your set is good to go if it's hooked up to cable.

But when 6abc conducted its DTV test and web chat last week, some cable customers told us their TVs failed the test.

We promised we'd investigate, and we have.

Now the federal government is looking into this, too.

CLICK HERE for our chat with the FCC about the DTV switch

Kathy Maffei has RCN cable for her family's televisions. She rents a digital converter box for her primary set, while her three TVs upstairs get cable by plugging into the wall.

Her understanding was all of her TVs on cable would be good to go for the switch to digital, no upgrades or new boxes necessary.

After all, an FCC commisioner said so on Action News.

But, on November 3rd, RCN shut off the analog on Kathy's cable system. Now Kathy's upstairs TVs show only an RCN message that says: "Make sure all of your TVs are hooked up to an RCN standard digital converter box. This allows them to get digital signals. Without a box, you won't get anything after RCN goes digital in your neighborhood."

RCN is giving customers their first box for free, but every box after that is $2.95 to $14.95 per TV, per month.

Clearing up the confusion:

There are two completely different events are at play right now.

There is a government mandate to broadcast digital-only signals starting February 17th. The mandate only applies to broadcast TV stations like Channel 6, not to cable companies.

However RCN, Comcast, and a number of other cable companies are also moving to all-digital on their own, separate and apart from the government-mandated switch.

One consumer advocate says, cable companies aren't being fair to their customers.

"This is something we believe is a bit deceptive in the timing against the backdrop of the national broadcast transition which is separate," said Joel Kelsey of the Consumers Union. "Cable companies are really taking advantage of confusion in the marketplace right now."

As part of this business decision to go all-digital, some cable companies are moving certain channels from their basic, analog package to their digital tier.

Comcast recently moved the Cartoon Network, Style, and AMC. So, to get those channels, you may have to upgrade to a digital package.

Many cable providers, including Comcast, have agreed to provide analog customers their local broadcast stations until 2012, without making those customers upgrade or pay for extra equipment. But RCN is not one of those companies.

RCN is going to the extreme: It's moving all of its channels to its digital tier, shutting off its analog signal to customers completely and forcing them to rent a box directly from RCN to get service.

"They're taking away consumers choice, their ability to choose between paying the same they've always gotten for their service or being forced to pay more to get the same service back," Kelsey said.

According to RCN's message, by going digital, you get more choices, more control, and, quote, "Loads more fun."

But to customers in the black, or about to get shut-off, this does not seem customer-friendly.

"I'm very angry because I feel like we're having this done to us," said Kathleen O'Keefe of Langhorne, Pa.

Consumer complaints have now sparked a government investigation. The FCC has sent letters of inquiry to 13 cable companies for possible violation of commission rules.

RCN told Action News it responded to the FCC's letter of inquiry as best it could and believes it is in compliance with all rules.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, to which Comcast belongs, says it believes the letters of inquiry are unlawful and an abuse of the commission's processes.

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RCN's full statement regarding FCC Letter of Inquiry:

"RCN is committed to advancing the FCC's goal of bringing advanced digital service to cable subscribers. We look forward to providing the information the Commission has requested that showcase our effort to upgrade our networks to be able to offer many new channels and advanced features such as high definition programming, video-on-demand, interactive channel guides to our customers. Just as with the digital transition that is occurring on February 17, 2009 for over-the-air stations, our effort to go all-digital has entailed considerable customer outreach and notice and we are thrilled with the extremely positive reaction among our customers when they receive the new and improved services."

Comcast Cable Statement regarding moving channels to digital tier:

"Occasional channel changes are made to meet strong customer demand for more high-definition and on demand programming, faster Internet speeds and other advanced services. These changes are entirely independent of the 2009 federally-mandated broadcast to digital change.

The vast majority of Comcast customers already subscribe to our digital service, but if they are impacted by lineup changes they can bring a set-top box from Comcast into the home -- in most cases at no cost. The box delivers many value-added benefits including On Demand, the on-screen channel guide and digital music channels. There is no need to change level of service or become a "Digital Cable customer."

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MORE DETAILS:

CLICK HERE to read the FCC's letter to cable companies

CLICK HERE to read the NCTA's letter to the FCC

CLICK HERE to read the Consumer Union's response to the NCTA's letter

CLICK HERE to contact the FCC

CLICK HERE for more on 6abc's DTV Test

CLICK HERE for our chat with the FCC about the DTV switch

CLICK HERE for Dave Roberts' instructional video on how to install a DTV converter

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From the FCC's website as to why they are investigating cable companies:

The FCC's Regulatory Responsibility:

Why did you open this inquiry and do you have the authority to do so?

- This is an official government request for information that was prompted by consumer complaints. We have a responsibility to review these matters as we would with any regulatory area that we are involved in. Responses to the letters were received from the companies this month are currently under review by the Commission's Media Bureau.

Can you expand on why the Commission opened the inquiry?

- We received a significant number of complaints from cable customers in recent months against the 13 companies that received the October 30th Letters of Inquiry from the Commission. Customers were complaining about their cable channels being moved from analog to digital and the related impact on their cable bills. Often times customers were being asked to pay the same for less channels, or pay more to get the channels they had previously received prior to the switch to digital back. The letter from Consumers Union that was addressed to two U.S. Senators on the issue was also considered in addition to the consumer complaints we had received regarding the matter.

Is this a violation of the Paperwork Reduction Act?

- Clearly this is not a violation of the Paperwork Reduction Act. We did not ask broad, sweeping questions of a large number of companies, rather, we asked a small group of companies specific questions in relation to consumer complaints we had received about each one of these companies.

Companies' obligation to respond to Commission:

In response to concerns raised about the confidential nature of information that may be responsive to certain questions in the Letter of Inquiry, this information should be submitted to the Commission as requested. The Companies can request confidential treatment of such material and the Commission will hold it under a protective order, shielded from public disclosure.


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