Comcast ready to deliver digital TV, cable Internet

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— Some Steamboat Springs cable subscribers will be able to sign up for digital cable by July, with the availability of high speed Internet access via coaxial cable to follow within 30 days, Comcast Corp. said.

The balance of Steamboat Springs should be able to access the services before the end of the year, according to Comcast's spokeswoman Tiffany Payne.

"Comcast really wants all of our customers to get these products as soon as possible," Payne said. "We are spending more than $200 million to upgrade and rebuild our cable network in Colorado. Comcast's goal is to get all of our markets in the U.S. upgraded within 12 to 18 months."

A local computer systems consultant called the arrival of high-speed access via coaxial cable a significant development.

"It will be a huge thing," Clay Ogden of NorthWest Data Services said. "It's a huge win for everyone in town who doesn't have high-speed access."

Cable television service here formerly was provided by AT&T Broadband. AT&T spun off its broadband division and combined it with Philadelphia-based Comcast in November 2002. The deal made Comcast the country's largest cable company with 21.4 million subscribers.

At the time of the merger, the company provided digital cable to 6.3 million customers, high-speed data to more than 3.3 million customers and cable phone service to more than 1.3 million customers.

AT&T previously sold local customers "digital service" but Payne said that wasn't true digital cable. Comcast's new service will allow subscribers to choose from among various packages to receive "hundreds of channels." For example, customers who have the new digital cable will be able to view "five to six plexes that come under HBO," Payne said.

The cost of digital cable varies with the packages, Payne said. The cost of the high speed Internet access will range from $42.95 to $55.95 per month. The variables that determine the price include whether the customer owns a set top modem or rents one, and whether the customer also orders digital cable.

A subscriber who wanted high speed Internet alone, and rented the modem, would pay $55.95 a month. Signing up for digital cable would result in a $10 monthly discount off that price.

Ogden said there is an ongo-

ing debate over the relative merits of Internet access via cable versus other methods of accessing high bandwidth. "Cable is potentially not as robust as DSL or T1 (lines)," Ogden said. To understand the differences, picture DSL as a hub and spoke system with dedicated lines going to individual customers who can expect to get the full advantage of the bandwidth to their location.

Cable systems are more like loops serving a number of customers in a neighborhood, Ogden said. Increasing numbers of customers in a neighborhood accessing the Internet at the same time presents the potential for the speed of the service to be degraded.

"It's still a boatload faster than dial up" access on traditional copper phone lines, Ogden said. He has clients in other cities, who have cable access.

"The typical complaint is that when it gets really busy, they get really slow," Ogden said.

Steamboat residents who live more than three miles from the downtown DSL hub can't access that system. For them, the availability of cable Internet will make a big difference, he predicted. Cable offers the advantage of not tying up the single phone line into a home. Comcast's reported rates are significantly less than the $90 he pays monthly for DSL service at his home, Ogden said.

Comcast's decision to offer a discount to digital cable TV subscribers has been assailed by consumer watchdogs.

An April 2 article in USA Today reported that both the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America have asked the federal government to rule on whether that practice violates antitrust laws.

A spokesman for the Consumers Union expressed concerns that the practice is predatory and intended to drive satellite broadcasting out of business.

Comcast countered that it is merely offering incentives to its customers. The customer says satellite competitor EchoStar does the same when it bundles its satellite video with another firm's high-speed DSL lines for Internet access. Comcast's bundling of cable TV and high speed Internet represents the latest in a series of maneuvers by large corporations jockeying to gain control of communications services piped into Americans' homes.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, founder of News Corp., agreed earlier this month to purchase Hughes Electronics Corp., and with it the nation's largest satellite TV enterprise, DirecTV, from General Motors Corp. for $6.6 billion. DirecTV has 11.2 million U.S. subscribers.

Murdoch's company already owns Fox Entertainment, giving him a major position in programming as well as the means to beam those programs into homes.

Comcast's acquisition of AT&T Broadband subscribers gives it a competitive edge by allowing it to amortize programming fees over a broader subscriber base.


-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or

e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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