RCN Goes All-Digital to Expand HD Offering

RCN’s Chicago system has started the transition to an all-digital video service, a process that will allow the overbuilder to reclaim bandwidth used by analog channels and dramatically expand its lineup of high-definition channels.

“We have about 55 high-def channels that are active on the system today and are already looking to add additional ones in the upcoming months,” RCN vice president and general manager of the Chicago market Tom McKay said. “We’d like to get to 100 this year.”

RCN has not yet announced a timetable for the move to all digital in its other markets, which include New York and parts of Boston, Eastern Pennsylvania and Washington D.C.

“We’d like to do more markets but at the moment we are studying our options,” said vice president of network engineering Rick Swiderski.

“Eliminating analog and going all digital obviously frees up spectrum not only for HD channels, but also all the other things you need spectrum for, such as [video on demand] and data offerings,” Swiderski added.

The move comes amid growing competition among HD offerings in the Windy city and surrounding areas. Satellite provider DirecTV is already offering about 100 HD channels and EchoStar has announced plans to boost its channel count from 72 to 100 in 2008. Comcast, which took its Chicago system all digital in 2007, and AT&T, which began launching its U-verse Internet protocol-TV service in the suburbs of Chicago last month, have also announced plans to dramatically expand their HD lineups this year.

RCN converted its first hub -- each of which passes about 20,000 homes – Jan. 15 and is planning to convert another hub each week. McKay expects to complete the entire cutoff of analog services by April 15.

The move to an all-digital system requires the installation of digital set-top boxes in all homes -- a capital and labor intensive process. But RCN could face lower costs than other operators, thanks to a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission last year that allows it to deploy the less expensive Motorola DC700 series digital boxes.

RCN is also installing Motorola HD-capable boxes in the DCH series, including the Motorola DCH3416 all-digital DVR.

RCN has also been upgrading its networks -- most are now 860 Megahertz -- and during 2006 all of its systems moved to digital simulcast services.

“We’ve been digital simulcasting in Chicago for quite a while, so removing the analog channels isn’t that big of a challenges and doesn’t require a lot of new equipment,” beyond some encoding equipment, said McKay.

New, low-priced packages will also help reduce customer complaints about having to install a digital box, McKay hopes. “Our signature tier, which used to be 80 channels, is expanding to about 200,” he said.

“It is a great value proposition,” said Swiderski. “There is a little pain but at the end consumers can see quite a gain.”

Adding more HD VOD content is also on the roadmap, but Swiderski said, “Our immediate focus is on expanding the linear channel lineup. We are still in the process of filling up the spectrum with addition high-def content.”

Further down the road the additional spectrum could also be used to deploy DOCSIS 3.0 products.

“That will be a late 2008 and early 2009 event,” Swiderski said. “We will be nicely positioned to have the network capable of doing channel bonding when the product becomes available.”