RCN’s Basic Encryption Move Draws Litt le Fire

WASHINGTON — ConsumerWorld.org founder Edgar Dworsky has a bone to pick with the Federal Communications Commission and RCN over digital basic encryption.

The longtime consumer advocate and sent out an email under the subject line, “Thousands of TVs go dark as cable provider RCN scrambles local channels.”

But rather than generating a flood of complaints, RCN, a competitive provider operating mainly in such major cities as New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., said the switchover two weeks ago was “pretty much a non-event.”

The FCC last fall ruled that all-digital cable systems could scramble the basic tier, requiring a cable box to decode the signal. Dworsky also pointed out that RCN sent out the requisite 30-day notice to subs last month for the April 10 transition in Boston, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

“The change in the rules is going to trigger a significant added expense for cable customers with multiple TVs,” said Dworsky, adding that he personally has three HDTV’s and a TV tuner in his PC that will require boxes. Cable operators are required to make low-cost or no-cost boxes available for up to two sets in a household for up to two years.

“Who would think that in 2013 we would have to resort to going back to using rabbit ears just to view local television channels?” Dworsky said. “Thanks, FCC.”

Dworsky, who is an RCN subscriber, told Multichannel News that when he called the company last Wednesday (April 17) to order his box, he was told he was the first person to call about having “no picture,” but that the customer service representative said they expected “a lot” of other calls.

Chris Fenger, senior vice president of operations at RCN, called the switch-over pretty much a non-event.

RCN’s Chicago system made the transition in December, Fenger said, and got “a few calls” and handed out a few boxes. He says RCN has complied with all FCC rules, including giving out a free HD box to subscribers who’ve requested them — the FCC only requires it to be a digital box.

He said the switchover in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley (where RCN is the incumbent cable provider) probably drew “a couple hundred” calls out of some 300,000 subscribers.

The company had provided the requisite notice via such means as bill stuffers and cross-channel promo spots, Fenger said. The operator has been all-digital since 2010, and that some subscribers used boxes they already had in the closet, he noted.

The FCC adopted the rule prohibiting cable operators from scrambling digital basic tiers so that viewers with cable-ready sets would not have to buy or rent a set-top box. But because of the cost savings to cable operators on allowing encryption, as well as the reduction in pollution from fewer truck rolls, theft-of-service prevention and the general lack of complaints in markets where the agency had granted waivers — most prominently to Cablevision Systems in New York in 2010 — FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said it was time to lift the ban and the agency voted unanimously to do so.

The FCC recognized that some viewers might be dislocated, but said it would affect only a “very small number of subscribers” and took steps to mitigate the impact on them, including free boxes.


Though a consumer advocate is blasting RCN for its decision to decrypt digital basic, the overbuilder says relatively few subscribers have called to complain.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.