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ACS converting to all-digital lineup

Television viewers who subscribe to Arvig Communication Systems for cable may be in for a big change.

That's because ACS is embarking on a multi-year plan to convert its cable television programming to an all-digital lineup.

"HD will drive that by and large," said ACS Director of Video Operations David Pratt.

For most viewers who still have older analog sets, that means they'll have to install a cable box to continue to watch TV. ACS customers that have what is called an ATSC/QAM tuner will still be able to plug the coaxial cable in the back of their TV's.

And viewers who subscribe to ACS's Three-Star package and above will still need a digital converter box as well.

The changes will not affect customers who subscribe to the One-Star service that includes the local channels such as ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. Those customers will not need to have a cable box.

"If you do not have a newer TV with an ATSC digital tuner - if you went out and bought a TV today, you wouldn't have a problem - and you're not subscribing to our higher tier of services, you wouldn't need a box," Pratt said.

ACS plans on installing small cable boxes called digital terminal adapters made by Motorola. The DTA's are smaller versions of normal digital cable boxes, but don't provide any extras.

"It will accommodate a non-digital tuner TV to be digital," Pratt said.

ACS plans on making the change in the Walker, Akeley and Nevis service areas this summer.

"We're starting that this summer in an area of our network where we are the most bandwidth constrained," Pratt said.

Pratt said that adding more high definition programming is a priority in that area.

It won't happen overnight, but Pratt said that a dedicated team would go out and install the DTA boxes in customer's homes.

A plan to move to an all-digital lineup in Detroit Lakes isn't a priority for ACS right now because its system in the area has more bandwidth than some others.

"We have some room to work with yet," Pratt said.

The change is needed because providing cable on analog channels, Channels 2 through 70, take up a lot of capacity on ACS's system. Digital cable on the other hand allows for more channels, faster Internet speeds and telephone service because all travel along the same coax "pipe" to customers home.

"To the customer, it's a pretty transparent thing," Pratt said. "It's the magic that takes place behind the scenes."

Several digital channels can fit into the space of one analog channel. And even high definition channels take up less room on a cable system because two HD channels can fit into the space of one analog channel.

Pratt said that HD is a priority for ACS. Compared to satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network, ACS's high definition offerings pale in comparison.

Besides HD service, an all-digital lineup also gives ACS the flexibility to offer higher Internet speeds or more phone service.

Conventional television broadcasts that are on analog channels at the moment will also have better picture quality. Some channels that might not look great due to interference could come in crystal-clear digitally.

Other future upgrades planned for ACS include upgrading its digital cable boxes to accommodate MPEG4 encoding. MPEG4 would allow ACS to squeeze more digital channels into the space of one analog channel.

Pratt's hope for ACS' future plans is that the move to an all-digital lineup going forward is what is called cap-and-grow. Under that scenario, after a certain date, new customers would be all digital, so that the remaining customers who need in-home visits would be minimal.

"It's easier to manage and we don't have to try to change everybody overnight," Pratt said. "But if you do it through a cap-and-grow, you can get a lot of people changed over that way."

Pratt added: "It will definitely be a multi-year project."