Basic cable is about to do a slow fade for Time Warner customers in the Kansas City area who don’t have adapter boxes for their televisions.
The Kansas City area’s largest cable provider is going all digital with its two basic levels of TV service. That means you will need a box for every TV hooked up to Time Warner or, starting March 3, channels will start to disappear from your service.
Recent mailings to customers have explained the changes that will happen over the next two months. Simple digital adapters will allow TVs to continue receiving the 70 channels on the company’s Standard TV package and the 20 channels on its Starter TV deal.
Time Warner is providing adapter boxes free for one or two years to most customers. After that, monthly bills will include charges of $2.75 a month for each adapter.
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That’s significantly more than the $1.50 a month Time Warner Cable said it would charge customers in Los Angeles and New York who went through this last year.
“These are expensive pieces of equipment we are putting in people’s homes, and there’s a cost associated with that,” said Mike Pedelty of Time Warner Cable.
Pedelty said the newer adapters here are more expensive and handle high-definition TV, which earlier versions did not. Also, he said, other cable companies mostly already require digital adapters and charge monthly rent for them, and satellite TV companies also charge for the equipment their customers need.
Time Warner has said it is making the changes to improve signals for basic cable TV and to allow it to speed up Internet service for its broadband customers.
The added charge has drawn objections from consumer groups that point out basic cable customers are being asked to pay more each month to keep the same channels they already have.
“They didn’t have to do that,” said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, whose personal Comcast cable service added these fees previously. “Back in the day, we didn’t pay for that basic connectivity.”
The problem, Cooper said, is that cable companies don’t face enough competition.
Comcast and Time Warner are seeking federal approval to merge. They and other cable companies largely operate in markets apart from each other, and alternatives offer limited appeal. So the adapter charges have become standard practice.
Time Warner’s small digital adapters are different from its big cable set-top boxes with a digital clock display. Those large boxes are the ones customers with Preferred TV packages have for their TV sets. Those TV sets will see no changes to their services or charges from these changes.
But many Preferred TV customers are picking up digital adapters for their secondary TVs that now hook up directly to Time Warner’s cable with no boxes. And customers who buy Standard TV or Starter TV packages haven’t needed boxes until now.
It’s these TVs — sets without boxes — that will start losing channels beginning March 3. Pedelty said these TVs will lose a few channels at a time with the last channel disappearing in late April.
Time Warner has sent information to customers alerting them to the need to get adapter boxes for those sets. The slow phase-out of channels will help customers realize service is changing and prompt them to order adapters online or to visit a Time Warner outlet.
The adapters come with coaxial cable, an HDMI cable for high definition TV sets, a power cord for the box and a remote used in setting up the box. Customers also have to call a Time Warner number to activate the adapters once they’re set up.
Federal rules allowing cable companies to shift to all-digital signals required them to provide some adapters free for a period of time.
Subscribers who now have no Time Warner equipment can get two free adapter boxes for up to two years. They would then start paying the monthly rental rate at that time. Customers who qualify for Medicaid can get two free adapter boxes for up to five years.
Customers who already use Time Warner equipment, like those big set-top boxes, can get up to four adapters free for other TVs for up to one year, before paying rent on each.
Switching to digital is intended to pay off several ways.
First, the boxes will allow those TV sets to receive Time Warner’s digital signals. The company says this will mean a better picture, improved sound and more reliable service. Currently, sets without a box rely on a duplicate analog signal, which Time Warner is doing away with slowly over the next two months.
Second, cable TV will be harder to steal because it won’t work without a box. The cable industry says theft of cable service costs it billions of dollars each year, costs that inevitably get passed along to paying customers.
Third, the shift will free up capacity along Time Warner’s cable lines, allowing the company to provide faster Internet services to those customers.
For example, its Internet service in the Kansas City area will see maximum download speeds for its Standard service rise to 50 megabytes per second, from 15 mbps currently, Pedelty said. Its Extreme service will reach up to 200 mbps compared with 50 mbps now.
Those faster speeds should show up during the second quarter of the year, after the cable TV changes. Time Warner said it can speed up its Internet service by using the capacity currently used by its analog TV signals that are going away.
The Federal Communications Commission had required cable companies to provide basic cable as an analog signal until October 2012.
Comcast, which also provides cable TV in parts of the Kansas City area, converted to digital signals in 2013. The move to digital will come later this year to customers of Consolidated Communications Inc., formerly known as SureWest.
Time Warner said it plans to boost Internet speeds without raising fees, which drew the attention of John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney for the consumer group Public Knowledge. He questioned the notion that Internet customers are benefiting as basic cable customers face new charges.
“It’s good to see new broadband competition,” Bergmayer said. “You don’t want to see cable prices going up to fund that.”
Pedelty said the higher cost for cable customers is due to the boxes that provide them better-quality signals and service.
Time Warner, with about 260,000 customer relationships in the Kansas City area, is feeling competition in more of its businesses.
As an Internet service provider, it faces an expanding Google Fiber and the recently introduced AT&T service with Internet speeds up to 1 gigabyte per second.
As a cable television operation, it faces competition from Internet-based TV services such as Netflix and Hulu, which are prompting traditional cable customers to cut the cord.
Time Warner, like other cable providers, also faces increasing costs from program providers such as the Walt Disney Co., which owns ESPN. Pedelty said those TV programming costs have contributed to higher cable prices for consumers.
Time Warner Cable said these devices will work in place of its own digital adapters that cost $2.75 a month.