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Comcast’s Digital Move Irks Some in Chicago

At least 121 cable subscribers in Chicago are unhappy about Comcast’s forcing them to move to a digital-video tier in order to receive about 38 channels they used to get without set-tops.

That’s the number of Comcast subscribers who have filed complaints in the past two months with the City of Chicago’s Department of Consumer Services about the operator’s analog-reclamation initiative, representing about one-third of all Comcast-related complaints.

“Naturally, any time you effect this sort of change, a certain set of those customers are going to be a little reluctant or resistant to change,” said Rich Ruggiero, Comcast’s vice president of communications and public affairs for the Greater Chicago region. “Our experience overall has been that as customers adopt digital services, they’re more satisfied over time.”

Comcast has 1.8 million subscribers in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. The company hasn’t disclosed how many customers would be affected by the switch, but Ruggiero said it was a “distinct minority.” He added that two of Chicago’s five operating regions have been all-digital except for the most basic tier for two years.

In April, where it still offered an expanded-basic analog tier, Comcast began eliminating more than one-half the channels in a project it expects to have completed across Chicago by July 1. That gives Windy City subscribers the choice of receiving either a stripped-down analog service of about 34 channels or installing a Motorola DCT700 set-top to get an 80-plus-channel lineup.

Comcast tried to appease subscribers by not raising rates for current analog customers and waiving lease fees for new set-tops. It also promoted the superior signal quality of digital video, as well as the service’s access to video-on-demand and on-screen program guides.

Not everyone was mollified: In April, there were 78 complaints about the digital-conversion project to the city’s Department of Consumer Services, about 39% of 198 total Comcast-related complaints. In May, there were 43 about the digital conversion (36% of 121 total).

By contrast, in April 2006, there were 57 complaints about Comcast services, and in May 2006, there were 82.

Bill McCaffrey, director of public affairs for Chicago’s Department of Consumer Services, said the volume of complaints about the digital-cable transition was not an “unusual number, given the circumstances.”

Most of the complaints were related to subscribers’ general unhappiness about having to switch, McCaffrey said, adding, “These were people saying, ‘I don’t want digital-cable service. I’m fine with what I have.’” The rest -- 33 in April and eight in May -- were related to technical problems installing or using the digital set-tops.

By zapping 38 channels from the analog tier, Comcast will free up a whopping 228 megahertz of spectrum. That’s enough for more than 100 new HD channels or 380 standard-definition channels. Comcast may also choose to add VOD capacity or expand Internet bandwidth.

The MSO is also eliminating handfuls of analog channels in other systems, including those in Alabama and Colorado. But Chicago, from all appearances, still represents the operator’s largest-scale analog-reclamation effort.