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Comcast predicts customer windfall after analog shutoff

Cable operator Comcast is expecting a boom in subscriptions — as many as 2 million households — after analog television is turned off in February.

These are mainly viewers who still rely on a roof antenna or rabbit-ear antennas on their TV sets. While broadcasters claim the digital picture will be better than analog TV, critics question whether digital signals will be compromised after encountering hills, tall buildings and trees.

“The real $64,000 question here is how many units is it going to generate?” Comcast executive Stephen B. Burke said in a recent conference call with analysts. “We think it’s going to be a substantial number of new basic customers.”

The Goldman Sachs Group, the New York investment bank, said in a mid-July report that Comcast, which has 24 million cable customers, could add 600,000 subscribers because of the DTV transition.

Critics of DTV said the flat terrain in Wilmington, NC, made the test a success and will not reflect what will happen in the transition in hilly areas such as Philadelphia. Centris Consulting, a market-research firm, said that about 17 million U.S. households received free over-the-air TV and that it believed the number will fall sharply after the transition.

Barry Goodstadt, a Centris senior VP, said the British experience in a digital transition showed that antennas are very important to the success of DTV. He said he believed Americans will need more powerful antennas to receive digital signals.

Comcast estimates that 6 million to 8 million households in its national cable areas get free TV through rabbit ears or rooftop antennas. The company used the Centris data for the analysis.

Of the free-TV viewers in Comcast’s area, 1 million to 2 million could sign with a pay-TV service because they will not get adequate free-TV reception, Burke said. He projected the number based on DTV signal strength.

Comcast’s basic pay-TV subscribers pay an average of $64 a month for service. A projected 600,000 new customers, based on the Goldman Sachs report, would add $460 million a year to Comcast’s revenue.

Goldman listed major TV markets that it considered poorly prepared for the DTV transition. The least-prepared markets in Comcast cable-franchise areas are Salt Lake City; Houston; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Albuquerque-Santa Fe, NM; and Portland, OR.