Some Hargray cable subscribers soon will get only 12 channels unless they are willing to pay more for a new converter box.
The company will move 50 channels to a digital-only format beginning sometime this year. That will require customers who do not have digital cable to purchase a converter box to continue receiving those channels. Many more digital subscribers with one or more TVs receiving cable from a wall jack will also need converters.
The channels offered only in digital will include ESPN, NFL Network, The Discovery Channel, Comedy Central and Fox News Channel. The 12 local broadcast channels, including WSAV, WTOC and PBS, will not be affected, according to a Dec. 16 letter from Hargray to customers.
Hargray officials say the switch to an all-digital format will free bandwidth space for faster Internet speeds and more high-definition channels.
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"Analog channels chew up considerable bandwidth," Andrew Rein, vice president of sales and marketing, said. "Going all digital enables us to expand the Internet capacity to meet the demands of our customers."
Customers can currently --without the converter box -- tune in to limited basic cable by plugging a cable wire into the back of their televisions. Once the digital transition takes place, customers will need the converter to unscramble the digital signal and display it on the TV.
About 5 percent of customers do not receive digital cable and will need the converter, Rein said. He did not know how many subscribers already with digital boxes also have TVs receiving cable from the wall.
"A small percentage of our customers will have to have an additional set-top box, if you will," he said. "Really, this is for our customers with a third, fourth or fifth TV plugged into the wall."
For existing customers, the converter is free until the end of 2014, and $1.99 a month per TV after that. New Hargray customers pay $2.99 a month per TV. The converter does not have an interactive channel guide, on-demand or pay-per-view services, according to Hargray.
Rein said the company will black out analog channels in waves but a schedule has not been finalized.
Hargray isn't the only Lowcountry cable provider to pare down analog programming.
Time Warner Cable started canceling analog channels in 2010, said spokesman Scott Pryzwansky. The company's basic package on Hilton Head Island offers 15 digital-only channels, he said.
He said the company is exploring going all-digital in its New York City market, but it has no plans for such a format in the Lowcountry.
Caleb Denison, an editor and technology writer at DigitalTrends.com, said more companies across the country are switching to a digital-only format to save bandwidth space.
"An analog channel occupies about 14 times as much bandwidth as a digital channel," he said. "It really does allow for more high-definition channels to come down the pipeline."
But for a non-high-definition subscriber or someone with no need for high-speed Internet, the digital converter offers no benefit, he said.
"It doesn't make the picture better," he said. "It really just gives the cable companies control over the stream. If you want to watch cable, you have to buy this box."
Denison said such control is important for cable companies nationwide. The industry is fighting for consumers' wallets against digital video-players that access the Internet to stream content from websites, such as Netflix through televisions.
"You can get all of your other content from (digital video players) Roku or Apple TV," he said. "Anytime someone streams, it's lost revenue for the (cable) companies."
For viewers who want local, high-definition stations, but do not want cable channels, he recommended purchasing an antenna from a Consumer Electronic Association-sponsored website such as antennaweb.org.
"Put in your zip code to see where broadcast towers are relative to you and what antenna you will need," he said. "It's an easy way to get local channels with a nice picture."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.