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Comcast Expanding 'All-Digital' Domain

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) has started the "all-digital" process in parts of its Boston- and Atlanta-area systems as the MSO continues to free up space for more HD networks and the speedier Docsis 3.0 cable modem platform. (See Comcast Sets Wideband Goal .)

The MSO says it's already starting to migrate some analog channels to the digital domain in Winder, Ga., with plans to do the same in nearby North Fulton County in the next month or so, according to Comcast spokeswoman Alana Davis. The MSO will continue doing that in the Atlanta area on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

Comcast isn't that far along yet in the Boston area, but it has started the "marination" process in Newburyport. In that early, preparatory phase, the MSO is proactively installing digital boxes and simpler, one-way digital terminal adapters (DTAs) during routine truck rolls before the market is "on the clock" for the analog-to-digital channel migration.

Marination is also underway in the MSO's Philadelphia region. The initiative, dubbed internally as "Project Cavalry," is already started or completed in the Bay Area; Portland and Salem, Ore.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Seattle and other parts of Washington. (See Comcast Sends In the All-Digital 'Cavalry' and Comcast 'Cavalry' Rides Into NoCal .)

A key goal of Cavalry is to move about 40 analog channels from the operator's expanded basic programming tier to digital, while leaving its basic "B1" tier (about 20 channels, depending on the market) in analog. In those markets, the MSO is giving each expanded basic customer two DTAs and one entry-level, interactive set-top (so it supports the MSO's interactive program guide and video-on-demand apps) for no additional cost for as long as they remain Comcast customers. (See Comcast Seeds Digital Shift With Free Boxes.)

Comcast, responding to pressure from the likes of DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) and Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH), is already starting to beef up its HD lineup using reclaimed analog spectrum capacity. In Salem and Eugene, for example, the MSO launched 30 new hi-def networks last month after it completed the digital migration there. In Chattanooga, meanwhile, the MSO is starting off by packing in 22 new hi-def channels and booting up a 50 Mbit/s (downstream) Docsis 3.0 service.

Cisco cometh
So far, all of Comcast's all-digital moves have occurred in markets based on Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)'s digital platform, where the MSO is deploying DTAs from that suppler, as well as from Thomson S.A. (NYSE: TMS; Euronext Paris: 18453) and Pace Micro Technology .

Comcast expects to start the process in some initial Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)-based markets by mid-2009 or later, according to Comcast VP of video services Jay Kreiling.

That timing will likely hinge on how rapidly Cisco polishes off its own DTA product and a headend component that can control it. Just ahead of the recently concluded cable show in Washington, D.C., Dave Clark, director of product strategy and management for Cisco's set-top product unit, told Cable Digital News that his company expects to start delivering DTA samples to MSO customers by June.

"It's definitively a real product. We're about finished with the development phase on this," Clark said.

Cisco, he noted, has developed a specific model for Comcast, called the DTA30, that houses some unique frequency specs for the device's remote control. Another model, the DTA50, is for other MSOs.

Comcast had previously indicated that it will need up to 25 million DTAs to complete the project across the board.

In a video interview at the cable show, comcast chief technology officer Tony Werner said he's been pleased with the performance of the DTAs so far, and that Comcast is on track to have about half its markets started down the all-digital path by the end of 2009. Werner's comments about the DTAs appear at the six-minute mark of the video, embedded below:

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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