Comcast Orders Up DTAs

Comcast has selected three vendors to supply digital-to-analog converters — Motorola, Pace Micro Technology and Thomson — and will order up to 6 million of the devices in 2008, according to an industry executive familiar with the MSO’s plans.

The operator wants to distribute the DTAs to analog video subscribers, to unlock 250 Megahertz or more spectrum by retiring dozens of analog channels.

Comcast chief operating officer Steve Burke in April told Wall Street analysts the company expects to cut over 20% of its footprint to all-digital operation in 2008, using DTAs.

Next year, Comcast expects to order another 12 million DTAs as it widens the analog-reclamation project, the executive familiar with the MSO’s plans said.

The move indicates that Comcast is primarily looking to use DTAs to boost system capacity in the near term to provide more room for high-definition channels and “wideband” Internet service, rather than other techniques such as switched digital video.

Pace, while it has not commented on its work with Comcast on DTAs, announced on May 29 that it signed “a significant new contract for the U.S. cable market” for a low-cost digital-to-analog converter product that “will enable the transition to all-digital networks and will be delivered over the next three years.”

Comcast declined to comment. A source close to the operator, however, cautioned that those initial figures may be somewhat higher than the actual number of DTAs the operator will purchase.

Digital-to-analog converters are sub-$50 devices, cheaper than the least-expensive digital cable set-tops on the market, designed to provide basic access to linear TV channels. The DTAs don’t provide advanced digital cable features, such as access to video-on-demand or digital video recording.

Comcast has developed a preliminary list of markets that are candidates to cut over to all-digital but has not yet made decisions about which markets will be the first to deploy the DTAs, according to the Comcast source.

In the spring of 2007, Comcast eliminated about 38 analog channels in Chicago, issuing Motorola DCT700 set-tops to analog video subscribers.

Comcast chief technology officer Tony Werner, speaking on a panel at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers’ annual Cable-Tec Expo in June, said each system that completes the “all-digital” conversion will reclaim 250 to 300 MHz of spectrum.

Burke, on another panel at SCTE, said Comcast will begin its DTA rollout and analog reclamation initiative “in earnest” this fall.

He added, “We call it 'all-digital’ but we’ll keep the analog B1 channels,” referring to the most basic group of local broadcast and public, educational and government channels.

The reason Comcast is eager to eliminate analog channels is to “clear more capacity for high-def and channels for DOCSIS channel bonding,” Burke said.

“Right now even though we say we have 1,000 high-def options on-demand, the fact that DirecTV can say, 'We have 100 HD channels and no one else does’ — that’s not a place we want to stay in,” Burke said.