Bugs Hit Comcast Bay-Area DVRs

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Comcast Corp. employees in the San Francisco Bay area have been grappling for the past month with problems with Motorola Broadband Communications Sector digital-video-recorder set-tops that left subscribers complaining about the picture on their televisions freezing.

As cable operators continue to roll out more advanced set-tops containing complex hardware and software used to enable new services such as HDTV and DVRs, some of them are running into problems with the new technology.

Last fall, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc. and Adelphia Communications Corp. subscribers reported problems with their Scientific-Atlanta Inc. DVRs that resulted in problems such as picture freeze. Time Warner replaced the S-A boxes and conducted new software downloads in New York and several other markets in October.

About 6.5 million U.S. homes had DVRs at the end of 2005, including roughly 2 million cable homes, according to Forrester Research Inc. While the DVR glitches have affected a small percentage of viewers, DVR sales are growing rapidly, with Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff predicting that there will be 11 million DVR homes by the end of 2005.

Glitches affecting users of Motorola’s “6412” dual-tuner DVR first surfaced at Comcast’s San Francisco Bay-area system about 10 days after the operator began rolling out the boxes Dec. 9, system spokesman Andrew Johnson said.

“It was certain Motorola DVR units that were manufactured on certain dates with certain serial numbers that had the glitch on it,” said Johnson, estimating that about 1% of Comcast subscribers in the Bay area were affected by the problem.

Another source said about 3,000 Comcast subscribers in the Bay area were impacted by the glitch.

Motorola vice president of engineering Mark DePietro said the vendor recently sent a software-patch fix designed to fix the bug to operators that have deployed the dual-tuner set-tops, which include Cox, Charter Communications Inc., Insight Communications Co. Inc. and Time Warner. But DePietro said he hadn’t received reports about picture freeze from other operators.

Comcast spokesman Chris Ellis said some of the Motorola DVRs affected by the software glitch were also deployed in systems in Lansing, Mich., and Harrisburg, Pa., which resulted in “a small number of isolated cases” where subscribers reported problems with picture freeze.

One source familiar with the issue said computer chips manufactured by Broadcom Corp. were the root of the problem that sparked picture freeze on Comcast’s analog channels. But DePietro insisted that the DVR glitches weren’t related to the Broadcom chips.

Broadcom spokesman Bill Blanning declined to comment, noting in an e-mail message that the company is “not in a position to comment about our customers and their products.”

Broadcom announced an agreement with Motorola in June 2003 making it the primary supplier of chips for Motorola set-tops through 2004. DePietro declined to comment on whether Motorola has extended its agreement with Broadcom, noting that Motorola currently uses chips from Broadcom and other suppliers.

Comcast officials in California have responded to the DVR glitches by both replacing the Motorola DVRs in homes that reported problems and downloading a software update from system headends designed to stop the picture freeze.

Johnson said Thursday that subscriber complaints have “dramatically dropped off” since Comcast downloaded a software patch to the Motorola set-tops Feb. 11.

Motorola spokesman Paul Alfieri said the company believed the bug that caused the picture freeze “is specific to the San Francisco area,” but he also wouldn’t rule out the chance that other operators may face similar problems.

“We try to be as bulletproof as possible, but there’s always a chance that something could go wrong,” Alfieri said. “The set of test circumstances that we’re looking to test for bugs make us confident that another operator is not going to have this problem.”

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