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Originally published September 14, 2009 at 12:06 AM | Page modified September 15, 2009 at 7:30 AM

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Brier Dudley

Comcast to encrypt signals

The next round of Comcast digitization is coming soon, potentially upsetting another wave of subscribers. But a Kirkland company has developed...

Seattle Times staff columnist

The next round of Comcast digitization is coming soon, potentially upsetting another wave of subscribers.

But a Kirkland company has developed an intriguing new product that could help technically inclined people cope with Comcast's changes.

We've known since December that Comcast was switching channels 30 to 70 from analog to digital. This is forcing "expanded basic" customers to add Comcast converters to every TV and limiting the usefulness of VCRs and non-Comcast digital video recorders.

The company gives affected customers up to three converter devices. They're free — but don't provide the high-definition signals many customers had been receiving on some channels. For HD, you are supposed to rent a more expensive box.

There was a small loophole, but it's now closing.

Comcast has been transmitting the digital signals unencrypted. That means people with TVs that have built-in digital tuners haven't had to use the adapters yet. Some people with bare-bones $14 cable service (and a TV with a "QAM" tuner) have been getting expanded basic channels for free.

But not for long. Late last month, the FCC authorized Comcast to use the free converter devices as descramblers. That's a green light for the company to start encrypting signals, which it began doing a few weeks ago in Spokane. The rest of Washington will follow soon, meaning all expanded-basic customers will truly have to use converters soon.

"We're still on track to encrypt, definitely, by the end of the year," spokesman Steve Kipp said Friday.

The company is simultaneously providing more channels in HD (and raising rates), but you'll need a digital package to get the crisper image.

Comcast's digital switch is mostly done in Washington except for Seattle, where it begins next month. Kipp said 20 of the 40 affected channels will go digital in the city from Oct. 27 to 29, and the rest on Nov. 10 and 11.

Since this all began, I've heard from people seeking alternatives, or at least ways to reduce the number of Comcast boxes.

One alternative is to use a combination of basic cable, broadcast TV and Web video from sites like but that can get complicated.


If you're doing this on a PC connected to a TV, Windows 7 may make things easier. Its Media Center software, which records video, has a new tool for customizing its TV schedule grid, so you can blend cable, broadcast and Web channels and easily choose which to select.

Another promising tool is the "Multi-Channel Cable TV Card" announced last week by Ceton, a Kirkland company. It's a TV tuner for Windows 7 PCs that uses a single cable input to play and record up to six channels of HD content at once. Live or recorded shows can be shared across a home network, so one cable tuner feeds multiple TVs.

It works with broadcast TV and multistream Cablecards, a type of converter Comcast gives to expanded-basic customers. But it only has one input jack, so you'll need a second tuner to get cable and broadcast signals simultaneously.

A four-tuner version is coming first, in early 2010, on prebuilt PCs and as an add-on PCIe card. Spokesman Ed Graczyk said the per-tuner price will be competitive with current devices that cost around $250.

That's not cheap, but neither is $22 per month for additional Comcast HD DVRs in a house with several TVs.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or

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About Brier Dudley

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

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