Steve Nelson | Better the Comcast briar patch



The worst cable system in America may be right here in Berkshire County and adjacent Columbia County, New York. It's the Charter Communications system serving Hinsdale, Lanesborough and West Stockbridge plus several New York towns including Chatham, where the head-end is located.

Using 30-year-old analog technology, this Charter system has a capacity of only 450 megahertz, about half that of modern cable systems. With digital technology, those systems can compress their channels (squeeze them into less bandwidth), thereby making their effective system capacity far more than double that of Charter's Chatham facility. Most cable operators today, including Charter in other areas of the country, are upgrading their systems to all-digital, or already have, so as to provide their customers higher quality and more services.

For Charter's local customers, outdated technology and low capacity means that they get a limited channel lineup and few if any high-definition channels, which require more bandwidth than standard-definition channels.

Because Chatham is one-way analog, customers can only receive signals but not interact with the system, so they cannot get video on demand, as they would in a two-way digital system. Most importantly, they have no Internet service.

This situation has been addressed by the Federal Communications Commission. On Nov. 1, 2012 Charter filed a request that it be granted a two-year waiver of a requirement for set-top boxes which would increase their cost, while it implements a downloadable solution to meet that requirement less expensively. The FCC accepted Charter's argument that granting the waiver "will uniquely accelerate the digital transition in rural America, an area that the commission has previously acknowledged is in greater need of digital investment" because "Charter will be able to use the cost savings realized from not deploying more expensive boxes" to invest in improvements to those systems.

On April 18, 2013 the FCC issued Order DA 13-788 granting that waiver for a period of two years, with Charter agreeing in exchange to "transition all of its cable systems to all-digital within nine months of expiration of the two-year waiver period," that is, by January 18, 2016. This is a bit like the old story about the rabbit pleading with the fox, "Please, please, don't throw me in the briar patch!", where of course he knows full well he will survive. Charter and all cable operators know full well that it is in the briar patch of digital where they will survive the challenges of today's competitive TV and Internet marketplace.

Since the issuance of that order, Charter has in fact been rapidly upgrading its systems to all-digital, but not those served from Chatham. Hinsdale's franchise agreement with Charter expires next February, and on June 4 a government relations representative for Charter appeared before its Select Board requesting a 10-year renewal of that agreement upon the same terms as the expiring 10-year agreement, which is essentially the same as the 10-year agreement before that.

Under the agreement Charter is only required to serve customers in areas with at least 30 homes per linear mile of cable, which leaves many Hinsdale residents in less densely populated parts of town without cable TV. In Lanesborough, the threshold is 25 homes per mile, but in several Franklin County towns served by Comcast, only 15. West Stockbridge, renegotiating an agreement which expired a month ago, wants the current standard of 30 lowered significantly.

At the Select Board meeting the Charter rep explained that its Chatham system cannot be expanded beyond 450 megahertz, nor upgraded to provide Internet, because it is carried over the network of a local telephone company. Perhaps when the system was built decades ago, using that telephone infrastructure was an expedient solution. But for a cable company to be piggybacking on a telco's old wires is unheard of today. Cable operators operate and invest in infrastructure they own.

He also said that it is too costly for Charter to rebuild the Chatham network with its own lines, so it would not do so. But there is no cost exemption in FCC Order DA 13-788 that would allow Charter not to upgrade Chatham to all-digital. When asked about the order, the Charter rep shockingly denied there was any such thing. The Hinsdale Select Board voted not to sign the franchise agreement.

In the meantime, larger forces are at play. Comcast is seeking to buy Time Warner Cable, and if that deal is approved, will through a separate deal take over all of Charter's systems in New England and New York. For Comcast to continue operating the Chatham system as it is now would not only be a violation of the FCC order, but an embarrassment to a company which is a technology leader in the cable industry. Comcast is actively upgrading all its systems to all-digital, and rolling out services which require connectivity to the Internet, such as an advanced program guide and video-on-demand based in the "cloud."

Comcast will want to operate the Chatham system with technology it uses in its other systems. The towns served from Chatham are adjacent to towns served by Time Warner's major cable system in Albany. So the likely solution for the Chatham towns will be for Comcast, after acquiring Time Warner, to extend that system into those towns and do away with the Chatham head-end.

For now, residents in those towns must wait and see, and plead "Please, please, don't throw us in the Comcast briar patch!"

The writer is former president of The Cable Channel, which produced video programs about the cable business for almost 25 years.


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