Comcast Corp. cable TV subscribers might have noticed a small new charge in their bills recently.
After years of giving customers with "standard/expanded" basic cable service up to two digital TV adapters for free as part of the upgrade to all-digital broadcasting, the cable provider now is charging $1.99 a month per digital adapter.
The new fees, being rolled out in each of Comcast's markets, took effect in March in the Baltimore area. The company, which declined to provide the number of subscribers affected, said it notified customers ahead of time of the decision and that pricing always has been subject to change.
Comcast spokeswoman Alisha Martin said in an emailed statement that the adapters, provided as part of the digital transition that began in 2008, also provided basic cable subscribers with more channels and better picture quality. Adapters also allowed the company to increase the number of high-definition channels and offer faster Internet speeds, she said.
"Bringing these enhancements to our customers requires significant investment, and we feel the nominal fee now being implemented for DTAs [digital TV adapters] appropriately reflects the additional value of the service," she said.
The company said it alerted Baltimore-area customers with "direct notices" that the changes would be occurring in March.
But there seems to be some confusion about which subscribers will be required to pay the new fee.
Comcast charged Stephen Gaede, a subscriber of "limited basic" service, the extra fee for two months, even after he complained. The Butchers Hill resident recently learned the charges were a mistake and was promised a refund.
Customers with the "limited" service, mainly local broadcast, public, government and educational access channels, will continue to be provided up to three adapters as part of their subscription.
But when Gaede called the cable company to complain, he was told the adapters had been distributed free of charge initially as a "promotion."
"That is certainly not how it was sold to us," said Gaede, a Web marketing manager. '"I realize $2 a month isn't much, but it adds up for all of Comcast's customers. And for me, it's the principle of the thing."
Comcast had told customers with basic cable that they would need special adapters. By October 2011, Comcast shifted the last of its Baltimore-area subscribers to digital.
At that time, the cable provider offered subscribers of its "limited basic" service up to three digital adapters per household at no additional monthly charge. The adapters offered digital-quality picture and sound and an additional dozen channels.
By that time, customers with more expanded levels of service already had made the transition, some also using digital adapters on additional TV outlets. In her email, Martin said customers with standard/expanded basic cable, a higher level than limited basic, were provided up to two digital adapters at no additional charge.
Changing the fee structure now for even some subscribers is simply unfair to consumers, said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America.
"It's pure, unadulterated greed, and insufficient competition to prevent them from doing that," Cooper said.
At $4 per month for two digital adapters per household, for 23 million subscribers, "that's not a nominal fee," he said. "If you don't like it, switch, but who are you going to switch to" in areas with only one or a limited number of cable providers.
Comcast is not alone in charging for the devices. As part of the digital transition, Verizon offered customers the option of a free digital adapter if they did not want to upgrade to a set-top box, said Sandy Arnette, a Verizon spokeswoman.
"We still offer digital adapters at a stand-alone price of $5.99 per month in all markets," she said. But she said that customers who received digital adapters as part of the conversion are "grandfathered and have no monthly charge for their units."
Comcast said it continues to invest in its system, allowing it to enhance services such as adding more than 25 new channels in the past year, increasing Internet connection speeds, and adding TV shows and movies for on-demand viewing and streaming.
Gaede said he initially complained because his bill keeps increasing, despite his determination to stick with the most basic service.
"I was upset because I thought this would always be free," he said. "We didn't have to pay for digital converters in the past, so why now?"
Even though he won't have to pay the additional charge, he said the experience made him wonder "who else was impacted? It's strange that I got accidentally charged. Are they going to follow up, and are there other people like me? Most people would think, 'It's just two bucks, I'll just pay it.' But it was the principle of the thing."