Cable firms giving free switchover equipment

Firms criticized for confusing customers with new packages

WASHINGTON -- Comcast and other U.S. cable companies said Wednesday that they would give free equipment to customers in the switchover to digital signals, amid criticism that they were using the transition to promote more expensive packages.

U.S. television broadcast signals will switch to digital from analog on Feb. 17 under a congressionally mandated order to free up airwaves for emergency and other uses.

About 15% of all U.S. households rely on analog-only signals and will need to buy converter boxes to get service, according to the U.S. government.

Although cable customers will be automatically switched over, cable companies have been criticized by consumer groups for confusing customers with new channel packages and in some cases resetting rates for packages and charging them for set-top boxes.

Consumers Union complained, prompting regulators to call on the industry to change its practices. The group applauded the effort, calling it an important step.

"This is what we asked them to do and they stepped up," said Chris Murray, an attorney for the consumer advocacy group.

The National Cable and Television Assn., which represents most of the industry, said they would provide equipment and service at no extra charge for all-analog cable households through the end of June.

After criticism for not notifying consumers of its package changes, the companies will also give "clear and conspicuous notification" of any migration of channels to digital only.

Separately, broadcasters said local stations would conduct pilot tests switching television signals to digital from analog in 42 states and the District of Columbia on Wednesday.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents big networks such as ABC and NBC, said it has spent $1 billion to prepare for the transition.
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