By Steve Faguy
MONTREAL - Quebecor's Videotron is making its first step toward eliminating analog cable television service throughout its network.
Last Friday, the company issued a stop-sell order for new analog television subscriptions. The end goal is the transition of its approximately 412,000 remaining analog TV customers (many of which are hotel rooms or other business customers) to the company's illico digital service.
"We need more space in the network," said Videotron vice-president Isabelle Dessureault. In areas like western Montreal, where analog cable is still prevalent, Videotron devotes about 55 of its 135 6-MHz television channels to analog service. Ending analog service completely would allow the company to greatly expand its digital television and Internet service offering. Each of those 6 MHz channels could hold seven standard-definition digital channels or two high-definition channels, Dessureault said.
In fact, the numbers are even higher, according to Illicotech.com, an independent website that analyzes Videotron's digital television system. It shows some QAM digital blocks holding as many as 12 SD or 3 HD channels, though it notes a noticeable decrease in quality for highly-compressed digital channels. Simple math shows the elimination of 55 analog channels would allow Videotron to triple its number of HD channels (currently at 71), or add up to 600 new standard-definition channels. Dessureault said increasing Internet speeds, particularly for uploads, is also a priority.
No date has yet been set for the final termination of analog television, Dessureault said, but it would not be imminent. As a very rough ballpark figure, she suggested that the company would probably take all of 2013 to make the transition.
Videotron has already made a partial transition in the Gatineau region. There, it ended its Telemax analog cable tier, reducing its analog cable offering to 30 channels consisting of local channels, must-carry specialty services like CPAC and The Weather Network, and a couple of popular French-language specialty channels. Other cable providers like Shaw, Rogers and Cogeco have also made similar partial transitions in the year since the CRTC gave the green light for cable companies to end their analog services.
In Montreal, Videotron is facing strong pressure from Bell Canada, which is rolling out its all-digital Fibe TV service and claiming subscribers. While Videotron has just about every French-language HD channel that exists in Canada, its English-language offering lags behind Bell. Popular channels like Showcase, YTV, Food Network and MuchMusic are available in HD on Bell but not yet on Videotron. (A source inside Videotron says Showcase, Food Network and HGTV will become available in HD at the end of the month.)
Videotron's remaining analog service subscribers consist to a large extent of seniors, some of whom have been customers for decades, dating back to the former CF Cable TV, which was acquired by Videotron in 1997. Dessureault wouldn't get into details about what kind of promotions the company would offer to facilitate the process, but when it made the partial transition in Gatineau it offered free digital set-top boxes for analog customers and free 36-month rentals of STBs for people who had digital service with additional sets on analog.
Rogers, Shaw and Cogeco also offered free digital boxes or digital-to-analog adapters to customers making the switch.