Digital Shift Irks Cities


City officials in Michigan are irked over a Comcast decision to digitize all public, educational and government channels and move them into slots in the 900s.

Comcast stresses that the channels are not being moved out of the basic tier of service, adding that digitization will improve their audio and video quality. The operator wishes to unify the channel lineups across the 1.3 million homes it serves in the state.

Comcast’s business decision is another change apparently enabled by Michigan’s recently passed state-franchising law. Before that regulatory change, municipal officials could negotiate the placement of PEG channels, but now localities cannot regulate their placement.

In Comcast-served cities, most of those outlets are on channels lower than 25, according to city officials.

Comcast will move the channels to their new numbers by Jan. 15, according to notification letters that began hitting city mailboxes before Thanksgiving.

The majority of Comcast’s customers already subscribe to digital services, noted Patrick Paterno, director of communications for Comcast’s Michigan region.

Analog customers who still wish to view PEG programming will be provided a complimentary converter until the digital transition in 2009. After that date, pricing will depend on local promotions; Paterno noted Comcast has a long-standing promotional rate of $1.99 for a digital box and a remote.

This is just the latest operational change by Comcast since the cable-franchising law passed. Earlier this year, Comcast informed localities it would no longer provide free service to public facilities, such as fire stations. It has also closed some local payment offices and PEG production studios, according to Mark Monk, Michigan chapter chair for the National Alliance for Community Media. Local producers in Flint have to go to the Detroit suburb of Southfield, a 56-mile drive, to use a production facility, according to Monk.

“This change is causing greater consternation than any other change in strategy to day under [State Law] 480,” said Jon Kreucher, an attorney for Michigan cities.

He described Comcast’s action as a “cram down rather than a collaboration.”

Caren Collins Fifer, executive director of the Southwest Oakland (County) Cable Commission, said she’s worried about low-income seniors. Her community, Farmington Hills, has 500 basic only subscribers who can’t afford more television and view local programming as a way to feel less homebound, she said.

Collins Fifer is concerned they will be confused by the transition and won’t have a way to get to a cable office to claim a box.

One of the communities, Clinton Township, is working on a resolution that would attempt to set PEG delivery standards. The community is concerned about Comcast plans but also wants uniform practices among competitors WideOpenWest and AT&T, said Linda Badamo, Clinton’s director of cable television and communications (see sidebar).

Members of the state chapter of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors will meet to determine whether the Comcast action meets the obligation in federal law that dictates PEG programming be carried in the basic tier.

Comcast has asked communities for help creating public service announcements that will explain the channel changes to consumers.