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Carolina Op Opts for WSNet Digital Add-on

Austin, Texas-based WSNet, which delivers digital satellite television services to private cable operators, last week said it signed on to provide a digital-cable option to customers of small operator Ashe County Cable TV.

The Fleetwood, N.C.-based operator began offering its customers the digital add-on via WSNet last month. Ashe County Cable TV passes about 2,500 homes, general manager Marty Hampton said. He declined to say how many customers it served.

The cable operator counted about 45 analog channels on its programming lineup following a recent plant upgrade. Before that work was completed, Ashe County Cable TV had about 22 channels.

The direct-to-home satellite option-branded Ashe County Digital Cable-offers packages of 58 channels for $37 or 126 channels (including music channels) for $44, plus 41àla carte premium multiplex feeds, Hampton said.

"For us, it's a whole lot cheaper to do this kind of digital [cable] than to put in a digital head-end," Hampton said. The operator had considered HITS2Home, but determined that it would cost too much to upgrade and staff its head-end.

HITS2Home does offer its clients the ability to cherry-pick the digital services they offer their customers, Hampton noted. But with WSNet, "we don't have to worry about getting programming contracts," because the satellite company handles those details for operators, he said.

The DTH service from WSNet provides small cable operators with "a profitable digital alternative to DBS, which allows them to offer their subscribers a 200-channel digital service," WSNet vice president of sales Jim Lacey said in a press release.

Hampton acknowledged DBS is a threat in his market, but also said Ashe County Cable TV has begun to win back some customers from satellite services without trying the buy-back programs some larger operators have implemented.

"We can do what DirecTV [Inc.] and Dish [EchoStar Communications Corp.] can't do," Hampton said.

Because the cable operator still offers an analog package, customers don't necessarily need digital on all the televisions in their homes. And Ashe County Cable TV rents the satellite equipment rather than requiring customers to buy it. Equipment rental is $10 per month, per receiver.

The integration of local channels into the interactive programming guide is another benefit, Hampton said. Ashe County Cable TV offers local channels from up to six cities in North Carolina and Virginia, Hampton said, including low-power station Mountain Television Network of Boone, N.C.

Last year, WSNet announced a similar marketing agreement with Classic Communications, but the operator has not launched the DTH service.