The digital revolution will be televised. In high definition.
Cox Communications, the dominant TV provider in Wichita, is rolling out “go all digital,” which over the next eight months will replace the company’s current analog TV channels with digital service.
The change is primarily designed to free space on the cable system for more channels and, eventually, much higher Internet speeds.
Customers with older TVs will get more channels and some other benefits. Customers with newer TVs that are still on analog service will get high-definition pictures as a bonus.
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But the change will require a majority of existing customers to pick up a new piece of equipment to keep from losing channels as the new service phases in over the next eight months.
Here’s the deal: To keep using the sets you have, you’ll probably need a digital receiver box. Cox will supply those.
The most basic unit is called a “mini box.” It’s slightly bigger than a deck of cards and hooks into the cable between the wall jack and the TV.
For customers who are now receiving all-analog service, two mini boxes will be free for the first year. Any more mini boxes than that will cost a $1.99 a month rental fee.
Customers who have digital service on at least one TV will qualify for one additional free mini box for the first year.
After the first year, you’ll pay a rental charge of $1.99 a month for each set equipped with a mini box.
The only sets that won’t need a converter box, either the mini version or a full-scale digital receiver, are the newest high-end TVs that use a special cable card that the cable company can activate.
During the next eight months, channels will gradually disappear from analog sets as the company phases down that part of its service, said Cox spokesman Dennis Clary. All the analog channels are expected to go dark by Jan. 12, he said.
Customers currently using analog service now get about 50 channels, said Bruce Berkinshaw, director of product operations for Cox. After the switch, they’ll get about 30-40 more at no additional cost. They’ll also get an additional 45 music channels.
The new service will have an interactive program guide, allowing customers to find and tune to shows without needing a separate printed guide.
And those who have analog service on high-definition TVs will start getting the high-definition picture, Berkinshaw said.
The mini box can’t do everything a full-scale digital receiver can. Customers who opt for a mini box on secondary TVs will still have to use their main sets to watch premium movie, sports and subscription channels, he said.
A full-scale cable box capable of receiving all Cox programming rents for $8.50 a month, he said.
Cox doesn’t release its number of customers in the Wichita market, but it is the biggest pay-TV provider in the city.
If you’re a Cox customer, whether and how you’re affected by the digital switch depends largely on what equipment you have now.
If all your TVs are already connected through a digital cable box, you won’t see any difference. That’s about 40 percent of the customer base, Berkinshaw said.
If you only have an older TV and the TV is connected directly to the wall jack, then you won’t get any picture at all after the digital conversion is complete without a converter box. That’s about 20 percent of customers.
The remaining Cox customers have a hybrid system with some TVs on digital and some on analog. Typically, they bought big-screen TVs and use a digital receiver for the main television in the living room or family room, with older TVs hooked to analog and repurposed for secondary use in bedrooms, garages and basements.
They’ll need some receivers to keep those older TVs going.
Larry Frutiger of Wichita is one such customer.
He bought a big-screen flat-panel TV for his family room and has a digital service package and converter box there. He moved his old television, a 27-inch picture tube set, into the living room.
Wired directly to the cable, it gets fewer analog channels, but enough for a second TV set, he said.
“I’ve already got my mini box,” he said.
Frutiger, a retired aeronautics engineer, said it was a snap to hook it up – a cable from the wall to the mini box, a cable from the mini box to the set, a power line to the wall socket.
“Then you know what I did?” he said. “I unhooked it.”
Frutiger said the screen format the mini box put out is too wide for his set and cut edges off the picture, even using zoom setting that are supposed to fix that.
“Guess what I’m going to do in the next two to three days? Buy a TV,” he said. “I can buy a 32-inch flat screen TV for $159.”
He’ll still need the mini box, but it should fix the problem with picture size.
Digital vs. analog
Wichita is the fourth market in the United States that Cox is taking all-digital. The company ran a pilot program in Connecticut last year, followed by “go all digital” rollouts in Omaha and Tulsa.
To fully understand the change, you need to know a little bit about the difference between analog and digital transmission.
An analog system basically takes a television program and converts it to radio waves that can be received by any standard television set.
Digital transmission is more complicated. It involves using a computer to encode the program into a stream of electronic bits. A computer at the other end of the line decodes the signal and converts it to a radio frequency input the TV can use.
The amount of data that can move through the cable or over the air in a given system is called “bandwidth.”
Simply put, a digital system can push more information through the same bandwidth than analog, opening the possibilities for more channels and faster Internet speeds.
Paired with a high-definition TV set, the picture is much crisper than can be obtained using an old TV set receiving an analog signal.
However, digital is more or less an all-or-nothing proposition. If signal strength is low or is interfered with, the picture either freezes, disappears entirely or “pixelates,” breaking up into unwatchable squares.
That could be an issue in homes where there are splitters dividing a cable signal between multiple TVs.
Analog cable can’t come close to digital in picture quality and the bigger the screen, the blurrier it looks.
But it’s also simpler. You can hook up any TV without a special receiver because the TV is designed to work on the standard signal. Low signal strength or interference will degrade the picture, causing snow, rolling stripes or other imperfections. But as long as there’s any signal at all, you still get something.
Freeing bandwidth in the cable system is the primary motive to go all digital, Berkinshaw said.
At present, approximately 50 analog TV channels are about one-seventh of the total channels that Cox offers in Wichita. But they eat up 40 percent of the available bandwidth, he said.
Reclaiming that space will help the company fulfill its goal of providing ultra-high-speed Internet service for computer users by the end of next year, Berkinshaw said.
“To do that, we need more bandwidth,” he said.
The transition from analog to digital cable is similar to the digital transition that broadcast television went through in 2009.
The change opened the way for high definition broadcasting and numerous new channels, as broadcasters gained the ability to transmit several subchannels of digital programming in the same bandwidth.
For example, public television channel KPTS used to air one channel on analog. Now it has three separate digital channels.
Where the Wichita-Hutchinson market had about a dozen broadcast TV channels before the digital conversion, there are now more than 40.
In the broadcast transition, the government provided coupons for free digital converter boxes.
But along with the switch came complaints of lost and pixelated channels and boxes, like Frutiger’s new cable mini box, that didn’t the display the picture properly.
Berkinshaw said the company’s mini box is “very robust” and signal strength shouldn’t be a problem.
“I think our customers will be very, very pleased,” with the reliability, he said.
Berkinshaw said Frutiger’s complaint about getting the wrong picture size is the first he’s heard of its type.
And Frutiger’s old TV?
“It’s going to Sale of the Century,” the annual charity sale at his church, Frutiger said.
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.