Edna Ward
Opelika Observer

For the past several months, Charter Cable subscribers have received notices by mail and by public service announcements on cable that, effective June 24, 2014, a cable box for each of a home’s TV sets would be required to receive their signals.   Why?  Charter converted to 100{44c616e11cf70d617c8dd92fb0bc15f41001df771f775c6b004238009c89a3f0} digital and encrypted their signals.

According to Jeff Newman with the Federal Communications Commission, television signals require a certain amount of bandwidth, (or space for a simpler word). Analog, the older signal, requires much more space than digital.  Therefore, it is more profitable for cable providers to offer total digital service since they can offer more signals.  Cable companies can also activate and deactivate the signal from their offices to their subscribers. A cable employee and truck are no longer needed to establish or disconnect service.

There is also pressure on cable providers to offer Internet and telephone services. This increases theft losses, reportedly causing staggering losses of revenue to cable companies.  Petitions from cable companies to the Federal Communications Commission were approved and allowed cable companies to encrypt their signals – including those channels within their basic tiers. Once the signals are encrypted, subscribers will no longer receive clear signals on their digital televisions – unless they use a cable converter box or card.

Capt. Shane Healey, Opelika Police Department’s Public Information Director, says theft of television cable is very low in Opelika.  He could only recall a couple of cases of this type theft.  However, it is possible other cases do exist and settlements made without reporting to authorities. Or, Opelika may be an exception and thefts could be greater in other areas.

This analog – digital -encryption situation has been on-going for years.  1n 1996, another FCC ruling made available certain devices for public use – including cable cards and or converter boxes.  The cards were never really promoted.

According to Charter’s recent “FINAL NOTICE,” Charter will provide the required converter boxes with one box free for one year.  In the tiny print at the bottom of the page, “Standard rates apply after promotional period ends.”  Is the encryption of the signals and requiring converter boxes for all TV sets just a disguised rate increase?  Some subscribers say, “Yes.” Charter denies this.

Patti Michel, Charter’s Director of Communications, located in Asheville, N.C., explains, “Box rental has nothing to do with rates.  Charter has invested two billion dollars nationwide to upgrade their services including doubling Internet speeds at no additional costs.  The benefit of the digital box is that it enables them to provide the best possible TV experience for its customers, an improved viewing experience — a clearer picture, more channels and access to Video on Demand.”

2014 is not the first year that Charter claimed boxes would be required to receive their signals.  The same happened a few years ago.  After making the trip to Mall Boulevard in Auburn and picking up the “free” box and two more that supposedly were easy to install, here’s what happened back then at the Ward house.  The “easy-to-install” boxes were not easily installed.  Charter sent a technician to install them.  After he left, the televisions didn’t work at all.  The sets were already manufactured to receive digital signals which were received nicely without the boxes.  The boxes were returned to Charter and billing was adjusted.

Now June 24, 2014, arrived.  The Chicken Little “sky is falling” of the past finally happened; there is no clear television signal without a converter box or cable card from Charter now.  There remained an audio on Channel 12, WSFA but the video was encrypted.  The audio went silent the next day.  Most other channels now are blank with only a pattern of colorful, vertical stripes on a few.

What can customers do?  There are choices.  Option one:  Go to Charter, get the boxes, hook them up, but one year from now expect a charge of $6.99 monthly for the one one-year free box.  Option two:  Buy a converter box, connect it if you can and get the digital signals. After the initial purchase of a converter box, there will be no additional monthly fees. The FCC says the cable company has to provide a cable card for the box and the card’s rental should be much less than for the box. Wal-mart sells these type boxes for less than $50; however, a representative explained as of June 24th they are temporarily sold out at the Opelika Super Store.  Option three: Subscribe to another cable provider’s service. Option four:  Buy a digital antenna.  Depending on the location of your home, you might be able to receive ABC, CBS, CW, NBC and Alabama Public Television.  Option five: Disconnect the cable and simply learn to live without television.