Comcast To Hit 100-Mbps In Augusta, Ga., After Going 100% Digital

Comcast is gearing up to take its first system in the U.S. -- in Augusta, Ga. -- to 100% digital operation by February, eliminating analog versions of 16 limited-basic cable channels and allowing the operator to introduce a 100-Mbps broadband service for businesses.

Under Comcast's Project Cavalry initiative, the operator is converting expanded basic lineups to digital-only delivery and offering customers a free digital set-top and two digital transport adapters (DTAs) for no extra charge. In Augusta, which completed the Project Cavalry cutover on Sept. 1, the elimination of the analog expanded basic channels allowed the system to add 45 HD channels, bringing the total number of HD channels available in the area to 83.

Now the Georgia system is going whole-hog, planning to phase out the 16 channels in the so-called "B1" tier by Feb. 1, 2010. The limited basic channels includes local broadcast feeds of NBC, CBS, Fox, PBS and ABC, as well as local public access, education and government channels.

Following the "B1" analog reclamation, Comcast plans to roll out an additional 18 HD channels and will be offering a 100-Mbps high-speed Internet tier to Augusta businesses in addition to the 22- and 50-Mbps DOCSIS 3.0 residential tiers that are available in other markets, said Alana Davis, Comcast senior director of corporate communications for video communications.

Augusta was chosen to go fully digital because it "has a very small universe of limited basic customers and more limited capacity than some of our other markets," Davis said, operating at only 550 MHz whereas many cable systems today are at 750 or 860 MHz. Of the system's 86,000 basic subscribers, approximately 5% are limited basic only.

Comcast does not have immediate plans to take any other markets 100% digital, Davis said.

The Federal Communications Commission in 2007 adopted rules requiring cable operators to continue to carry the signals of local TV stations -- that opt for must-carry retransmission -- in analog format for three years following the broadcast digital TV transition, which was completed in June 2009. However, the requirement is waived if a cable system is 100% digital and all subscribers have access to the necessary equipment to view the channels.

Comcast customers will be able to access the B1 channels using a digital set-top box, DTA, CableCard-enabled device or a TV with a digital QAM tuner. After the system goes 100% digital, expanded basic channels will be encrypted, Comcast said, so at that point all TV sets, including those using QAM tuners, will not be able to view expanded basic channels without a digital device or CableCard.

In Augusta, Comcast will provide limited basic customers with up to three DTAs for no additional monthly service cost; additional DTAs are available for $1.95 per month.

In addition, as part of the all-digital move, Comcast Augusta will make nine additional channels available to limited-basic customers: WBEK, WJBF-Weather, WRDW-Weather, WRDW-My Network TV, WFXG-This TV, WCES-Kids, WCES-Know, WEBA-World and WEBA-SC.