Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cox answers cable-quality queries

Company says new signal will solve Channel 7 problems

Express Staff Writer

Channel 7 on Cox Communications cable has had recurring problems for years, but the worst of it came during the highly watched 2010 Winter Olympics when the NBC channel froze twice for about an hour each time. And problems have recently arisen on other channels, such as ABC, where voices are often out of synchronization.

Sun Valley City Councilman Nils Ribi said at a March 11 council meeting that numerous residents have expressed to him their frustration with Cox and want answers. To get those answers, he and the council invited Cox to explain.

Dan Wherry, Cox's director of operations for the Wood River Valley, did just that at the March 11 council meeting. It's the first time Cox has discussed the most recent problems. Prior to the meeting, the Express called Wherry repeatedly to obtain information about the Olympics glitches, but those calls were not returned.

"This has become a significant issue," Ribi said at the meeting.

Cox's problems pertain to Sun Valley's government because the city has a 12-year franchise agreement with the company—due for renewal next year—to guarantee that "high-quality cable" will be provided for the public. Ketchum and Hailey also have franchise agreements with Cox for the same reason, and those are "non-exclusive," meaning other cable companies are allowed to operate in the same area. Under the franchise agreement, Ketchum and Sun Valley receive a yearly fee from Cox equivalent to 3 percent of Cox's gross revenue. Hailey receives 5 percent. The fee is in lieu of any charge for use of city streets, alleys and public places.

To explain Cox's problems, Wherry first gave Sun Valley leaders some background, making it clear that as a cable provider, Cox just receives signals from broadcasters. And these signals have to travel long distances to reach the remote Wood River Valley. He said the longer the distance a channel travels, the more information is lost.

He said the problem was compounded when channels switched from analog to digital. With analog, he said, channels usually just get pixilated—that is, get turned into an odd mosaic.

"With digital, the same problems of pixilation exist with distance," he said, "but the picture's either there or not there."

This problem specifically applies to NBC, Channel 7, which went digital in August 2008 and has been "not there" repeatedly.

"We saw significant degradation in the signal after that," Wherry said.

The channel is broadcast from Jerome Butte outside of Twin Falls, about 70 miles away, and is captured by a Cox receiver on the top of Bald Mountain, about 3,000 feet higher in elevation. He said Cox worked with the NBC affiliate and discovered in September 2009 that another channel, Plum TV, was operating at the same frequency as NBC. He said Plum changed frequencies.

"We were hoping that was the solution," he said. "It wasn't."

The frequency change solved 90 percent of the problem, but the distance issue was still in play, apparent when the Olympics broadcast was halted.

"We thought, 'Here we go again,'" Wherry said.

He said the company thinks it now has the solution—a microwave link.

"The microwave link will take care of distance problems," he said.

A microwave link works by sending information over microwave frequencies in a specific direction. Wherry said the current transmitter sends information in all directions, which doesn't travel as far as a directional signal.

Wherry said the microwave link should be installed on Baldy within 45 days, but Cox must first get approval from the Federal Communications Commission. He said Cox will pay for the link, and the NBC affiliate will thereafter be responsible for owning and operating it.

However, that won't solve recent problems with other cable channels. But, Wherry said, the other problems are minor in comparison and sometimes out of Cox's hands.

For example, Wherry said, ABC's problem with slightly out-of-sync audio has nothing to do with Cox. He said Cox doesn't alter audio and video signals but merely takes them in. Out-of-sync audio must be fixed at the source of the transmission, by the ABC affiliate in this case.

"As soon as Cox receives three calls, the local Cox office finds out about it," Wherry said, adding that the company then contacts the affiliate to fix the problem.

He said people need to call when they notice a problem, no matter how tired they are of calling.

The other recent glitch was when multiple channels stopped working altogether. Wherry said the culprit was a cut fiber cable on Bald Mountain used to bring the channels into the valley. Crews went up to Baldy and replaced the broken cable, but that took some time.

"That's separate from all these other issues," Wherry said, "but it doesn't help with the pain, right?"

Trevon Milliard:

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