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Originally published April 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 6, 2009 at 9:45 AM

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Brier Dudley

Answers on Comcast questions

Ever since Comcast's digital plans surfaced in December, people have been asking how it will affect TiVos and Windows Media Center PCs that record and play TV shows.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Ever since Comcast's digital plans surfaced in December, people have been asking how it will affect TiVos and Windows Media Center PCs that record and play TV shows.

It's a good question, because it sheds light on what could eventually happen to everyone's TV, after signals are digitized and new technologies emerge for controlling the distribution of shows.

Getting the answer took more than three months and queries relayed to Comcast engineers in Philadelphia, TiVo in Silicon Valley and Microsoft in Redmond.

I'm just glad I wasn't on hold the whole time.

The background: Comcast is converting cable channels 30 to 70 from analog to digital format. This affects "expanded-basic" customers, who will need a converter device on every TV.

Comcast's move is separate from the digital-broadcasting conversion happening June 12; that involves over-the-air broadcasts.

Problems began more than a year ago in Michigan, where cities were furious when Comcast digitized public-access channels.

That led to a federal lawsuit, which prompted an FCC policy review that's now under way. With regulators glaring, Comcast took a different tack here. In the Northwest, Comcast is leaving "basic-basic" channels in analog format. It's also giving expanded-basic customers up to three free converters.

But, after talking with Nick Miller, a lawyer for the Michigan communities, I'm wondering how long they'll be free."The deal they've been trying to do with various franchising authorities around the country is to say we'll give free use of the boxes for a year and then we'll start charging rent for the box," he said.

Comcast spokeswoman Shauna Causey said Friday the boxes are free and "we have no plans to change that right now."

Perpetually free?

"If anything, the overall cost of the package could change but the boxes are part of the package so we have no plans to change the prices at this point," she said

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I'm digressing. Here's what to do if you're an expanded-basic customer using a TiVo or Media Center PC to record TV shows.

TiVo Series 3 models need a CableCard, which fits into a slot on the TiVo. Comcast will provide a free CableCard as a substitute for the set-top box given to expanded-basic customers. Ask for a multistream card with multiple tuners.

Older TiVos need to connect through a Comcast converter and use an IR cable to change channels on the converter.

Some Windows Vista Media Centers take CableCards, which should solve their problem. Other Media Centers will need an infrared repeater to relay channel-changing commands to the Comcast converter.

A Comcast spokesman said a typical Media Center setup won't be able to view and record at the same time when using a converter. On systems with dual RF inputs, a splitter may be used on the incoming cable, with one feed going through the converter and the other into the PC; the direct feed may be used to watch and record analog channels 2 to 29.

Simpler options are around the corner. Within a few years some TVs should have built-in CableCard converters, said Andrew Afflerbach, chief executive of Maryland consulting firm CTC: "You know that this sort of snag that we're in, this awkward situation of people having all these unwanted, unwieldy boxes in their house, is not sustainable."

Alternatively, you can pull the cable and just watch over-the-air shows and online video.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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