June 15th, 1999

Digital Cable

by Warren Wilansky • in Television
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digital cableMontreal’s cable television grid has been, for quite a few years, a symbol of Montreal’s two solitudes.

For years, there were two cable companies: Videotron, (serving the predominantly French sectors of the city), and CF Cable (serving the more English sectors). This was all fine, of course, as long as you lived in the right sector. But if you didn’t, well, tough luck. See, people don’t naturally live in a square grid. Sure, communities stay together, but some people are destined not to fit in their grid system perfectly. Enter, me.

This situation got worse before it got better when Videotron bought CF Cable, leaving viewers only one option. Still, for years after the buy-out, the system persisted whereby you were given your channels depending on where you lived, and you had to live with them. If you lived in Montreal’s east side, you got Musique Plus; west side, you got Much Music. Videotron didn’t even try to become a “good monopoly”.

But all that changed a few weeks ago.

I was looking through the newspaper, and saw a nice big ad for Videotron digital cable. Ahh, I figured it would be like one of the satellite services: decent price per month, but requiring a large investment/equipment purchase. So, I searched the article, and something seemed wrong. No up-front charges, no hidden fees, and I could choose whatever channels I wanted, at roughly the same price as regular cable. Woohoo!

So I called, ready to order the channels I wanted. I was told I’d have to wait a few weeks to get my digital box — the little brain that would make my TV digital. But since it came at no charge, it wasn’t a big deal.

In due time, I got the box home, installed it, and truth is, monopoly or not, my cable problems were finally solved: I had access to whatever regular channels I wanted, former geographical divvying up rules overridden.

I got what I wanted and was happy but — I’ve got to be honest - the technology isn’t perfect.

First, the digital box is obviously a new technology. Over the weekend I managed to crash the box while selecting and deselecting my favorites channels, leaving me with a 2-minute wait while the box started up again.

Second, there can sometimes be a bit of a lag when changing channels, which can mean up to a 10-second wait for a flicked-to channel to display. With analog TV, I never had to wait while the channels buffered and uncompressed. With my digital set-up, even when channels do come in quickly, I sometimes get a slide show effect, with a channel displaying, for a few minutes, between five and fifteen frames a second.

Third, I can’t watch those scrambled channels anymore. Before, even without ordering pay-per-view movies or events, I could listen to, or even watch them scrambled. As anyone who has ever watched scrambled “erotica” knows, the imagination is great at filling in the blanks. But now that I’ve gone digital, I get only blank screens…

Overall, I am satisfied with the choice and price of digital cable, although I think being an early adopter has its drawbacks. If you aren’t dying for certain channels, give it a couple of months, and let people like me do the complaining to clean up the service.

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