This is an example of the digital converter that all Comcast customers must order to keep service that’s beyond local channels.
This is an example of the digital converter that all Comcast customers must order to keep service that's beyond local channels. (Photo provided by Comcast)
DIGITAL TV EXPLAINED

Comcast is converting most of its cable television signals to an all-digital format. Here's a look at what that means:

Digital TV signals use the same language that computers do, so the pictures have to be decoded once they arrive at your house.

Digital TV is not the same thing as high-definition TV. While digital signals are considered clearer than analog signals, they can be sent in both standard and high definition. A high-definition TV is still needed to display a high-definition signal, but any TV can display a digital signal once it's converted.

Digital signals take up less bandwidth on a normal cable line than the older analog signals, so more information can be packed onto the same line. As many as 12 standard-definition digital channels can fit in the space that one analog channel takes up. More bandwidth can also mean faster cable Internet speeds.

MAKING THE SWITCH

Who it affects

Comcast customers who subscribe to "Limited Basic Cable" will not need new equipment or see any changes to their service. The limited package includes local channels like ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and FOX. Customers who subscribe to "Expanded Basic" or "Standard Cable" will need a digital set-top box or converters for each additional TV.

What it will cost

Comcast will provide customers with an existing digital set-top box up to two digital adapters at no additional monthly cost. Customers without an existing digital set-top box can receive one standard digital box and up to two digital adapters at no additional monthly cost. Most customers will not see a change in their bill. Adapters for more than three TVs will cost $1.99 each per month.

How to order

All Comcast customers with service beyond local channels must order new digital equipment themselves. To order, visit digitalnow.comcast.com or call 877-634-4434.

If you don't do anything

Unless Comcast customers order and install the new digital converters, they will lose some popular channels like ESPN, FOX News, Lifetime and Disney. But service for local channels and public-access stations will continue.

Benefits of digital TV

The upgrade to all-digital television signals will give all Comcast customers access to more than 100 high-definition channels, on-demand video and music service, on-screen programming and additional ethnic programming.

This summer, most Boulder-area residents who rely on Comcast to deliver their favorite television shows will have to make the switch to the digital age.

The cable giant is transitioning nearly all of its transmissions from the older analog frequencies to a digital format that allows the company to send more channels -- including more high-definition content and faster Internet service -- through the same cable lines.

The switch will affect almost all of Comcast's 840,000 customers in Colorado who receive standard or expanded basic cable, and will require every connected TV to have new equipment in order to receive anything beyond local channels and some government and educational stations.

Comcast will provide its customers with one free digital cable box, which decodes the digital signal and allows users to explore on-demand movies, television and music. The company will also provide each household with up to two "digital transport adapters," smaller converters to hook up additional TVs.

If customers want to connect more than three TVs, they will have to rent additional adapters at a monthly rate of $1.99 each. Additional cable boxes with the enhanced features can be rented at a cost of $6 to $10 per month, depending on the model.

Cindy Parsons, a spokeswoman for Comcast, said the company predicts most households won't need more than what the company is offering to cover for free.

"For the majority of our customers, there will be no additional cost," she said. "This moves our customers into the digital age."

She also said installing the devices should be easy for most people.

The transition to digital signals doesn't mean people will have to have a high-definition TV to use it. While the digital signal is considered better quality than the older system, customers still have a choice between standard and high-definition content.

The digital converters that Comcast is providing are also different from the converter boxes that are required for standard-definition TVs to receive over-the-air broadcast high definition.

Parsons said the changes should be completed statewide by the end of the year. Broomfield, Louisville and Superior will see the transition by the end of this month. Boulder and the rest of Boulder County will see the analog signal turn off in July. Longmont was the first city to receive the digital treatment and will have high-definition channels added next month.

One of the challenges for Comcast, though, is getting the word out that customers must order the new required equipment for themselves. The equipment is available now by visiting digitalnow.comcast.com, or calling 877-634-4434.

Parsons said Comcast expects to ship more than a million pieces of equipment statewide to fill the demand. Industry analysts say it's an investment that Comcast hopes will pay off by luring more customers with additional high-definition content and on-demand movies.

The move also frees up bandwidth along Comcast's existing infrastructure. One cable analyst said up to 12 standard-definition channels could fit in the signal space that it takes to send just one analog channel.

Parsons said 50 high-definition channels will be added to the company's lineup by the end of July using the freed-up space.

The change also means there is more room for high-speed Internet, which is also sent along the cable lines. Parsons said Comcast offers speeds of up to 50 megabytes per second, and that the shift to all-digital content could mean even faster speeds in the near future.

Parsons said Comcast has been working closely with local governments, which negotiate franchise agreements that allow the cable company to operate using public right-of-ways for maintenance.

"We've been very proactive in how we've communicated not only with customers, but with our franchise authorities," she said.

In Erie, for example, a Comcast manager recently attended a meeting of the town trustees to explain the new technology.

Fred Diehl, assistant to the Erie town administrator, said it's important for local governments to be knowledgeable about the transition since some customers hold them responsible.

"As the local franchising authority, we know we get the calls sometimes," he said. "We wanted to be in front of it as much as we could."

Most cities receive 5 percent of Comcast's annual gross revenue as part of their franchise agreements.

Last year, Boulder received more than $1 million in Comcast franchise revenue. The city is beginning to negotiate its next agreement, which is set to expire at the end of 2011. Cities do not, however, have the power to set equipment prices or cable rates as part of their negotiations.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Heath Urie at 303-473-1328 or urieh@dailycamera.com.