Ask Laz: All-digital TV: An excuse to soak cable customers with a new fee?

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Karl asks if I’ve heard that Time Warner Cable has gone all-digital.

He writes: “If you don’t have a cable box, they will force you to rent a converter from them at $1.50 a month (starting in 2016), even if your TV has a digital tuner in it or you cannot receive anything but the local channels. If you can get the locals you should be able to get them all. I smell a ripoff here!!”

Two exclamation marks. That’s how seriously Karl takes this.

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And he’s not alone. I’ve heard from numerous others in recent months about the transition to digital cable service and the fees charged for converter boxes. Here’s what you need to know.


Time Warner Cable has warned Los Angeles customers for months about the shutdown of its analog service, something that took place in July. The move frees up more bandwidth for faster Internet and more high-definition channels, the company says.

Anyone with a digital TV and a digital set-top box was unaffected by the changeover.

On the other hand, anyone whose cable line was connected directly to their TV -- that is, without a set-top box -- had an issue.

As Karl noted, TVs equipped with their own digital tuners can likely still receive local channels, but the rest of your channels won’t come through.

There’s a reason for this: Time Warner Cable is now scrambling its digital signal to deter piracy. That’s why you need either a set-top box or a digital adapter to unscramble all channels.

The company says it’s providing digital adapters to customers who need them free of charge through the end of next year. Beginning in 2016, it says, customers will have to pay $1.50 a month for the device.

Is that a ripoff? Yeah, a bit. Time Warner Cable has found a way to make all customers use its equipment and thus pay an extra monthly fee.


On the other hand, I sympathize with the company’s desire to limit piracy. And unless all TV manufacturers equip their products with digital tuners capable of handling Time Warner Cable’s encrypted signal, there’s no choice but to use some sort of external box as a descrambler.

My suggestion for the cable giant: Give the darn digital adapter away for free. You already gouge your customers heavily enough with charges, fees and fat programming packages stuffed full of channels people don’t even want.

Unfortunately, Time Warner Cable seldom takes my advice.

If you have a consumer question, email me at or contact me via Twitter @Davidlaz.