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RCN Almost Done 'Crushing' Analog

RCN Corp. is close to completing a digital transition in all its major metros that will free up capacity for an expanded menu of high-definition television programming and video-on-demand content, and supply extra channels for deployment of speedier wideband Internet services.

RCN, a cable overbuilder that counts Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) among its primary competitors, said it expects to complete its "Analog Crush" project in all "major markets," which include parts of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, by January 31.

By reclaiming roughly 80 analog channels, RCN said it will have the headroom to more than double the channels offered on its "Signature" (expanded basic) tier to 200, and offer more than 100 linear hi-def channels by March.

The digital transition will also allow RCN to move forward with a plan to deploy Docsis 3.0, a new CableLabs platform that uses channel-bonding techniques to produce shared speeds north of 100 Mbit/s.

RCN has not identified where it will introduce Docsis 3.0 first, but Chicago was the first market to get the operator's Analog Crush treatment. Chicago is also one of several markets where Comcast has introduced Docsis 3.0, starting off with an "Xtreme" tier that caps speeds at 50 Mbit/s downstream by 10 Mbit/s upstream. (See Comcast Wraps Up '08 Wideband Rollout .)

RCN officials were not immediately available for further comment in respect to its wideband plans, but last summer company CEO Peter Aquino said RCN would "probably" launch Docsis 3.0 by the end of 2009, with speeds expected to hit 50 Mbit/s or more. (See RCN Unveils Wideband Plans.) RCN's present high-end, single-channel cable modem tier offers downstream speeds up to 20 Mbit/s.

Although going all-digital will free up capacity for new services, RCN has a regulatory-related reason for completing the transition now. As a condition of a temporary Federal Communications Commission (FCC) waiver that allowed RCN to continue buying and deploying the Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) DCT700 (an all-digital box with integrated security), the operator pledged to go 100 percent digital before the broadcast TV digital transition. That transition is still set to occur Feb. 17, but could be delayed until June 12 if some House Democrats get their wish.

DTV delay could slow down other MSOs
If such a delay is enacted it could further push out analog reclamation plans underway at Comcast and at other MSOs. (See Comcast Seeds Digital Shift With Free Boxes.) That's because the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) , along with 14 cable operators, has proposed to stop migrating analog channels to digital-only tiers under a pre-defined "quiet period" that, at this point, would run through March 1, 2009. (See Cable Proposes Digital Transition ‘Quiet Period’.)

For now, the key components of the proposal stand. "Regarding cable's migration of channels from digital to analog, we will need to wait and see what happens with the broadcast transition before tackling that issue," an NCTA spokesman told Cable Digital News via email.

In the meantime, the NCTA has outlined a plan to help out consumers based on the original transition date. That plan, developed alongside President Obama's transition team, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) , and the satellite TV industry, calls for the creation of a National DTV Call center to be manned by 7,000 live operators and take questions in the days leading up to the transition and for "several weeks" thereafter. The NCTA estimates that the plan will require $20 million in out-of-pocket costs, "most of it expended by the cable industry."

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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