The days of sticking the cable directly into the back of the old TV will soon come to an end for Charter Communications’ customers in the St. Louis area.
The company is converting to an all-digital system and eliminating “analog” cable TV service. People who don’t already have a set-top digital cable box, or a cable card system, for each TV will have to get one to continue getting Charter pay TV.
In exchange, the company says picture quality should improve and people with high definition TV service will be offered 79 more channels. The boxes also provide video-on-demand service, not available on analog. Broadband Internet service should also speed up, Charter says.
The company, by far the region’s largest pay-TV provider, says it plans to roll out the new system location-by-location between now and mid-summer in St. Louis.
The move could be cost-free, for now, depending on the number of TVs in the home. According to Charter:
- Customers currently on the “digital” service tier may receive one additional free box for one year.
- Those on Charter’s “limited basic” service are eligible to receive two free boxes for two years.
- “Limited Basic” customers who qualify for Medicaid may receive two free boxes for up to five years.
- Customers with “expanded basic” service are eligible to receive two free boxes for one year.
- Charter charges $6.99 per month to rent boxes over those limits. The company says 90 percent of its subscribers already have a box on at least one TV.
People who plug the cable directly into their TV are probably getting an analog signal. Those who use a box, be it a Charter-issued box or a Tivo-like system with a cable card, are using a digital system. People with newer digital cable-ready TVs, with a cable card, are also getting a digital signal.
Switching to digital lets Charter move more information through the same cable. The capacity taken by one analog channel equals 14 digital channels or three to four HD channels.
“It’s really a better service,” said Ian Olgeirson, media analyst at SNL Kagan, a securities and industry analytical firm. Switching does speed up broadband Internet service, which travels on the same cable, while giving TV viewers more options, he said.
The additional HD channels allow Charter to catch up with satellite TV systems and AT&T’s U-verse system, Olgeirson said. Charter’s Internet service is already superior to U-verse, and the switch should move Charter farther ahead, he said.
U-verse offers 190 HD channels, compared with 179 for Charter after the digital switch. Charter says it plans to increase the count to 200 later. AT&T says it plans to more than double its U-verse Internet speed by the end of 2015.
Installing the set-top boxes requires some work from customers, who must follow Charter-issued directions on hookups — or summon a Charter technician for $29.99. Charter will send the boxes to houses, or customers can pick them up from Charter offices, which will have expanded hours during the switch.
Charter says it will notify customers of their switch date by mail, through messages with their bills, messages on their TV and through phone calls. “It is important for customers to take action within one month of their scheduled upgrade,” the company said in a news release.
Charter, like other cable companies, has been suffering from “cord-cutting,” people canceling cable TV and substituting cheaper Internet video services such as Netflix and Hulu. Companies initially feared that the hassle of digital conversions would drive away customers. But that doesn’t seem to be happening, Olgeirson said.
Charter, the nation’s fourth-largest cable system, has completed digital conversions in parts of Texas, California, South Carolina, Michigan and Massachusetts. It plans to complete the conversion in its 29-state system by the end of this year.