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Faster Forward: Can You Make Comcast's Digital Transition Without a Cable Box?

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009 12:34 PM

Over the past year or so, I've devoted a reasonable amount of ink and pixels to a sideshow in the digital-TV transition: cable-TV operators' separate, unrelated upgrade from analog to digital systems.

That second conversion is now picking up speed in the Washington area: Comcast, the largest cable provider here, has begun switching the bulk of its analog-cable channels to digital in much of Maryland, as well as in other markets across the United States.

A frequently-asked-questions section on its Web site explains that the Philadelphia firm is doing this to make more efficient use of its network bandwidth (the same reason why wireless carriers moved to digital service years ago). It also specifies that local network stations and public, educational and government channels will continue to be carried in analog.

In return, Comcast promises a vast increase in the variety of content available (notwithstanding the fact that most of us don't have any more free time in which to watch all that stuff).

But to watch both those new programming choices and existing, newly converted channels, viewers with analog TVs will need to add some new hardware to their setup: either a digital set-top box or a less-capable "digital adapter" (which doesn't offer access to Comcast's electronic program guide or OnDemand service). Comcast says it will provide one digital box and two digital adapters "no additional monthly service cost."

But viewers will still need to adjust to having another box, another remote control and another set of wires in their living rooms -- and the ones who have e-mailed me about this don't seem too happy about it. (The same thing happened when a much smaller cable firm, Herndon-based RCN, made its own digital switch last year -- although RCN reps compounded the problem by incorrectly blaming the move on over-the-air TV's transition from analog to digital.)

Digital-TV owners who subscribe to Comcast cable, however, face a different wrinkle. Most digital sets made over the past several years include a QAM ("Quadrature Amplitude Modulation") tuner that can receive non-premium, non-encrypted channels -- that is, the expanded-basic programming that Comcast is now moving from analog to digital.

Comcast's FAQ, however, doesn't say outright whether a QAM tuner will work to receive their newly upgraded digital service or not, instead recommending the use of a digital TV or TiVo digital video recorder with a CableCard slot. CableCards, however, have nearly been driven to extinction, in part because of apathetic support by cable operators, and the cable industry is now working on a successor technology called tru2way.

I've asked Comcast's PR folks to clarify QAM's status in this digital upgrade. In the meantime, maybe you all can help. Have you been able to tune into its non-premium digital-cable programming with your DTV, DVR or DVD recorder's QAM tuner? And was that a simple process, or did you have to spend some time figuring out channel numbers and labels that didn't match their placement in analog? Please tell me where you're tuning in from and what brand of TV or video recorder you're using. (Subscribers to other digital-cable services are also welcome to chime in.)

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