Posted in Montreal, My articles, TV

The beginning of the end for analog cable at Videotron

Remote controls for Videotron illico boxes will be needed soon in all homes with television service.

Do you have analog cable with Videotron? According to the statistics, probably not. The cable provider has managed to move more than three-quarters of its TV subscribers to the illico digital service, and the number of residential analog cable subscribers is quite low. A lot of 80-year-old West Island grandmothers who still think they’re getting service from CF Cable TV.

Anyway, last week Videotron took the first step toward dismantling its analog service by issuing a stop-sell order on new analog cable television subscriptions. Existing customers will continue to have service, but should expect to be forced into digital cable some time over the next few years.

How long exactly isn’t clear. Videotron vice-president Isabelle Dessureault wouldn’t put an exact date on it. But a timeframe of, say, 18 months is realistic, giving the company all of 2013 to make the transition.

You can read more about Videotron’s plans in an article I wrote for Wednesday’s Gazette, and another I wrote for the website Cartt.ca (subscription required).

This transition particularly affects the West Island, because it’s an area with a lot of analog television subscribers, and the western region of Montreal that Videotron inherited from CF Cable is the one that still has the most analog channels (55, according to a website that tracks Videotron’s network in detail, though that includes TVA’s Télé-Achats, which has just been shut down.) Some services have already been pulled off analog cable, like YTV and CMT.

Videotron has already started making this transition in Gatineau, where it killed the analog Telemax service and reduced its analog cable offering to a bare-minimum 30 channels (mostly local stations and must-carry channels). There, it offered free set-top boxes for existing analog customers (and free 36-month rentals for those who have a digital subscription with additional sets on analog cable). Dessureault wouldn’t say whether similar offers would be made in Montreal, but expect something along those lines. Dessureault explained that most set-top boxes are subsidized by Videotron – even the ones people buy – so the lower the price the higher the amount of the subsidy. It would probably be worth it to free up all that space and charge people more for more channels (not to mention prevent people from moving to Bell), but we’re talking about a serious outlay of cash to get thousands of homes set up with these boxes.

Don’t worry too much about losing your service right away. Videotron will walk people through the transition when it eventually happens.

6 MHz is a lot of space

It’s hard to understate what the disappearance of analog cable would do for Videotron’s ability to pump out more service. Each of those 55 channels is 6 MHz wide (the same bandwidth as an over-the-air television channel). In the space of each of those analog signals, Videotron could, through its QAM digital encoding, put through seven standard-definition channels or two high-definition channels, Dessureault tells me. An analysis of Videotron’s encoding system shows those numbers are actually higher, with some of those 6 MHz channels carrying three HD channels and as much as a dozen standard-definition ones. (The difference is compression – the more compressed the signal, the more channels you can fit in that block, but the lower the quality.)

Analysis of a 6 MHz Videotron QAM block at illicotech.com shows 12 SD channels and six audio streams in a space that would have been used for a single analog television channel

Doing the math, those 55 analog channels could become 165 new HD channels in addition to the 71 Videotron already has. In other words, tripling its current offering. Or it could become more than 600 new standard-definition channels, which I’m pretty sure is far more than the number of local TV stations and specialty channels that exist in this country.

Most likely Videotron will use the new frequencies to boost the number of SD channels and the number of HD channels, as well as the amount of bandwidth related to video-on-demand service and cable Internet (Videotron wants to particularly improve upload speeds, making the network more symmetrical in upload vs. download). All of this must share the same cable and so must be separated out on different frequencies.

The pressure is definitely being felt most in HD channels. Videotron is adding a handful every year, but space is at a premium. Videotron’s French HD selection is quite good. Well, it has to be, since no French-language commercial television service is going to be successful in Canada if it’s not on Videotron. But in English HD channels, Videotron lags behind Bell TV, which is aggressively trying to woo potential customers in the Montreal area with its fibre-optic Fibe service. Videotron only recently added such popular channels as Space and Discovery in high definition, and it’s still missing Showcase, Food Network and HGTV (though Videotron will add those three by the end of the month). MuchMusic, OLN, Comedy Network, CTV News Channel and YTV are other channels that should be high on the list of HD channels to be added to the grid.

And, of course, there’s still the continuing cry from customers to add AMC. Sorry, wish I had good news about that one. Videotron is aware of demands for it, but it seems discussions between Videotron and AMC haven’t borne fruit yet.

An unnecessary money grab?

After the Gazette piece was published, I got an email from someone who was thinking this move was more about Videotron wanting to push people off analog cable than it wanting more space for HD channels. A Cult MTL piece discussing this issue also frames it as a screw-the-poor move by Videotron.

While I don’t doubt for a second that Videotron’s main goal is profit, I have no reason to doubt its explanation. It has a bit of room left for new HD channels, but by 2014 it will be extremely limited, and the number of new channels and number of existing ones upgrading to HD will only grow.

Before saying they’re screwing customers, let’s see if they actually do it first. If Videotron offers set-top boxes for free (or as a free rental), as well as a digital channel package that gives the same channels for the same price, the net cost difference to the customer will be zero, combined with a hefty equipment subsidy on the part of Videotron.

This news was also discussed on DSL Reports and Reddit.

35 thoughts on “The beginning of the end for analog cable at Videotron

  1. Marc

    Well, I’m not an 80+ grandma and I just have analog cable. Mainly because it has all the channels I want and my two TV’s are CRT units; one of which is a made-in-Montreal 1981 RCA, still with a razor sharp picture. It has a Jerrold CATV box on top.

    I wonder, is the illico box absolutely necessary? Shouldn’t you be able to hook the cable right up to a DTV like you hook analog cable up to an analog TV today? I guess it depends if the DTV has the right decoder? I’m sure the illico boxes are just a cash cow for Videotron.

    One of the things that bothers me most about illico is its interface, on-screen guide, etc. It’s just one step up from the 1980’s Telidon-based stuff. Bell and others are light years ahead of Videotron in this dept.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      I wonder, is the illico box absolutely necessary? Shouldn’t you be able to hook the cable right up to a DTV like you hook analog cable up to an analog TV today? I guess it depends if the DTV has the right decoder?

      The digital signals used by cable and those used by over-the-air digital TV are different. Some cable companies have made the transition by moving analog cable channels to unencrypted QAM (“clear QAM”) digital, so any device with a QAM decoder can receive it. Many TVs in the U.S. do, and an adapter that converts clear QAM to analog is cheaper than a complete digital box. It’s unclear at this point if Videotron will use a similar strategy.

      I’m sure the illico boxes are just a cash cow for Videotron.

      The boxes themselves are subsidized by Videotron. They’re a net loss for the company. But they subsidize them because it means having customers who have access to digital television, where they can keep adding channels as they find new programming they like, or use paid video-on-demand, pay-per-view or other services that add $$$ to their bills.

      Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          So right now Videotron is using encrypted QAM?

          Yes. The only things using clear QAM are the local radio audio streams and a few barker channels.

          Reply
    2. Captain Obvious

      One of the things that bothers me most about illico is its interface, on-screen guide, etc. It’s just one step up from the 1980’s Telidon-based stuff. Bell and others are light years ahead of Videotron in this dept.

      Don’t worry, Videotron is rolling out software updates to the Illico boxes that pretties-up the interface. It’s loads better than the old version.

      Reply
      1. Marc

        Don’t worry, Videotron is rolling out software updates to the Illico boxes that pretties-up the interface

        Only for boxes that support it. None of the Scientific Atlanta boxes (which most people have) do. It means you would have to replace your box.

        Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      What’s Télé-Achats and when did it shut down?

      It’s TVA’s version of the shopping channel. It shut down at the beginning of the month and has since been pulled off analog and digital cable.

      Reply
      1. It's Me

        Oh, I though it’s name was Shopping TVA. It’s website is still up and appears as though its running.

        You’d think something like that would have been picked up in the news or a press release would have been sent out.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          Oh, I though it’s name was Shopping TVA. It’s website is still up and appears as though its running.

          Shopping TVA continues to exist as a website and as a show on the TVA network.

          You’d think something like that would have been picked up in the news or a press release would have been sent out.

          People don’t tend to send out press releases with bad news about themselves.

          Reply
  2. ant6n

    Even if they pay for the boxes, and charge the same rate, which I doubt, you still have the problem that you can only hook up one tv.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Even if they pay for the boxes, and charge the same rate, which I doubt, you still have the problem that you can only hook up one tv.

      Right, which is why you get more than one box.

      Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          doesn’t that imply, besides the cost for the multiple boxes, a higher monthly subscription fee?

          Of $3 a box, unless there’s a deal for that too.

          Reply
  3. Apple IIGS

    Ironically, I’m reading this news on (almost exactly!) the 10th year anniversary of when I cancelled my analog cable TV. Even more so, that just this weekend I was thinking how I could never go back to analog cable again, not since upgrading to a 55″ LCD TV. Even if it were free I wouldn’t do it.

    Still, I can’t help but think phasing out analog cable at this point in time is a bit premature…at least for some people. For one thing it’s just so much simpler to install and use. Attach one wire to the back of your TV, hit auto-scan, you’re done. Changing channels is just pressing up/down on the remote, ditto for sound adjustment. So much less to go wrong. Then there is the speed at changing channels….*lightening* fast, no, instantaneous really; no waiting several seconds. And recording shows with a VCR while being able to watch another channel. Or connecting up MULTIPLE televisions sets your home or apartment with just a splitter at no extra cost.

    Oh well, moot point since it’s disappearing shortly. As for myself, I’m happy without cable of any kind these days. :)

    Reply
  4. Apple IIGS

    Let me see if I understand this, if I were forced to switch to DIGITAL cable to preserve what I get with either classic Telemax (or even my free antenna set up), it would cost me approximately $75/month after tax?!

    I looked at the various packages, in order to have something that includes all my free-to-air antenna channels (CBC, CTV, Global, Metro14 + CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX and PBS) I would have to subscribe to Telemax+.

    Of course you could stick to “Basic service” for $30/month, but it only includes the four local English channels–how worthless is that? What a rip off, glad I have my antenna to get all my channels free.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Let me see if I understand this, if I were forced to switch to DIGITAL cable to preserve what I get with either classic Telemax (or even my free antenna set up), it would cost me approximately $75/month after tax?!

      Telemax costs $30. Added to the base service ($23 if not using other Videotron services), it’s $53 a month, or $61 including taxes.

      I looked at the various packages, in order to have something that includes all my free-to-air antenna channels (CBC, CTV, Global, Metro14 + CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX and PBS) I would have to subscribe to Telemax+.

      Regular Telemax will give you those channels. You can also get an à la carte package that allows you to choose what channels you want.

      Of course you could stick to “Basic service” for $30/month, but it only includes the four local English channels–how worthless is that? What a rip off, glad I have my antenna to get all my channels free.

      It also includes local radio stations, APTN, CBC News Network, The Weather Network and TV5. But sure, the basic service doesn’t have any of the fun channels.

      But if you’re happy just getting what you can over the air, all the power to you.

      Reply
      1. Apple IIGS

        Telemax costs $30. Added to the base service ($23 if not using other Videotron services), it’s $53 a month, or $61 including taxes.

        You’re correct, it’s $61.82/month with all taxes. However you ALSO have to purchase a digital receiver (SD receivers are not available for rental) which is $99 and a one time installation fee of $59.95. With taxes that is additional $182.75 just to become a digital TV subscriber!

        Interestingly analog Telemax was $45/month with all taxes. Not only is set up expensive, the monthly rate is higher!

        Regular Telemax will give you those channels. You can also get an à la carte package that allows you to choose what channels you want.

        On second look, you’re right. Though there are several digital free-to-air antenna channels not available. You do not get Vermont PBS, or WCFE’s sub channels for that matter (World, Create, MHz — all interesting stuff).

        It also includes local radio stations, APTN, CBC News Network, The Weather Network and TV5. But sure, the basic service doesn’t have any of the fun channels.

        But if you’re happy just getting what you can over the air, all the power to you.

        I don’t know about you, but local radio, the Aboriginal channel and weather network are about on entertainment par with the house of commons CPAC channel.

        Yes, I am happy with free over the air channels. Especially the FREE part. :) Far higher quality picture and sound as there is no compression, sub channels, channels not available through Videotron (Vermont PBS, This! movie channel, etc) oh, and did I mention free?

        Sure I miss some of the specialty channels, but I get good supplement with the Internet connection built-in to my Sony TV set. With a click of the remote I have free services like Crackle (lots of FREE spooling movies and TV shows) and Radio stations from around the world.

        Personally I think someone with an old fashioned TV set is far better off using a digital converter box and antenna if they’re on a budget. And these days, with the economy the way it is, most of us are.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          Though there are several digital free-to-air antenna channels not available. You do not get Vermont PBS, or WCFE’s sub channels for that matter (World, Create, MHz — all interesting stuff).

          Actually, WCFE and WETK are both in the Telemax package, but only WCFE is available in HD. Subchannels of the U.S. networks aren’t authorized for distribution in Canada.

          Yes, I am happy with free over the air channels. Especially the FREE part. :) Far higher quality picture and sound as there is no compression

          There’s still compression for digital over-the-air channels. The PBS stations, for example, heavily compress their HD signals in order to fit multiple SD subchannels. The difference in bitrate between over-the-air HD and compressed HD via Videotron is, in most cases, very small.

          Reply
          1. Apple IIGS

            Actually, WCFE and WETK are both in the Telemax package, but only WCFE is available in HD.

            As Vermont PBS is one of the most interesting channels available IMO (cable or otherwise), not being available in HD is a major problem.

            Subchannels of the U.S. networks aren’t authorized for distribution in Canada.

            And that speaks volumes for someone, like myself, who advocates free-to-air TV over cable.

            There’s still compression for digital over-the-air channels. The PBS stations, for example, heavily compress their HD signals in order to fit multiple SD subchannels. The difference in bitrate between over-the-air HD and compressed HD via Videotron is, in most cases, very small.

            http://blog.fagstein.com/2012/04/06/crtc-bell-cable-dispute/

            Read Alex H’s comment on this subject…

            “If you put BellTV on your screen with, say, CBC montreal hockey game, and then switch directly to the OTA signal, you would see that the OTA is SIGNIFICANTLY brighter, many times sharper, and easily detected by anyone. The compression rates are insane – and similar on Shaw direct as well.

            Videotron is somewhat less compressed, but they still do compression tricks to save bandwidth. That means that your videotron signal isn’t anywhere near as good as the OTA signal.”

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              As Vermont PBS is one of the most interesting channels available IMO (cable or otherwise), not being available in HD is a major problem.

              I suppose. But demand for a second PBS station in HD is outmatched by demand for more HD specialty channels.

              Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Doesn’t VDN in Montreal still offer analog cable?

      Yes. This is a decision by Videotron. It doesn’t affect other television distributors.

      Reply
      1. NTSC

        Yes. This is a decision by Videotron. It doesn’t affect other television distributors.

        Scratch that. It appears VDN was bought out by Bell, who has recently ceased any of the analog cable services they offered. As a matter of fact, I think VDN as an entity doesn’t exist anymore.

        Reply
        1. Marc

          Bell bought VDN at least 6-7 years ago. Last I heard the plan was to merge VDN into Bell Fibe once that network is fully rolled out.

          Reply
          1. Apple IIGS

            I just contacted VDN out of curiosity (on a side note, I’m one of their earliest customers. They used to service my apartment building under the name “CabloCite” in the early 90s!).

            They no longer sell analog cable, or cable Internet. In fact they are no longer “VDN”, they are simply Bell Canada. The woman I spoke with said if I’m interested in subscribing to Fibe or Bell Internet, they just pass the order along to Bell Canada. Bell invoice and same Bell prices.

            There are a handful of legacy VDN analog cable and Internet customers still receiving service, but they’re being phased out as we speak. It should be gone as early as next month.

            Bottomline is VDN and its technologies will soon no longer exist, in any form. They will fade away much like LOOK.
            Analog cable is not available anywhere in Montreal now… (and if you still have it as a legacy customer, its days are numbered. Quite numbered).

            Reply
            1. SN86

              VDN shuts down in my downtown apt end of September. Unfortunately (from the perspective of the consumer) they were bought by Bell and had to be eliminated. They had a fibre/coax network with higher top end frequency which supported up to 115 analog channels, digital & HD TV and internet up to 60Mbps all for less $ than Videotron or Bell. Why? Because VDN was a “simple” telecom co.

              They had a sizable footprint, all of NDG and pockets around that area with downtown as well. All that infrastructure and rights of way went to waste, they should have sold them but from Bell’s prospective they found it easy to eliminate a competitor than compete with them.

              Reply
  5. Anne

    I’ve been with Videotron for over 5 years. Videotron came and did a fresh install when we moved in.
    We have a triple bundle: Cable TV (60+ channels), High Speed Internet (120gigs) and Telephone service.

    Yesterday a Videotron technician came into our backyard and replaced the cable from the “telephone post” to the house. This was not a scheduled service call (Videotron did NOT inform us).

    Getting to the point: After the new cable was installed we noticed we now only have 29 channels (2-9, 11-26, 54-58) when we used to have over 60.

    After spending over an hour on the phone with Videotron Customer Service the outcome was:

    1) “You were never supposed to get all those 60 basic channels, only the 29 you have now. You had been getting them for free for the past five years”
    This sounds like an outright LIE to me.

    2) The analog service is no longer available. You can either continue to pay 30$/month for the low-quality 29 channels or switch to a Digital Box.
    Digital Box (free + free installation), but Must now pay $52.94 (basic cable $20.21 + “custom package 20″ $26.26 + tx) for 40 channels.

    So essentially we now have to pay an extra $23/month for 20 fewer channels.

    Breakdown:

    Spring 2007 ($23.28/mnth) to Fall 2012 ($29.28)
    $312$/yr average for 60+ channels

    Fall 2012 – onward
    $635/year: 40 channels

    MORE THAT TWICE THE PRICE FOR 2/3 the channels!!!

    If we wanted 60 channels again it would cost $59.85/mnth (basic cable $20.21 + “custom package 30″ $32.32 + tx). or $718/year.

    *** And this isn’t even for HD, just basic digital cable.

    Not very good business practice, and total disrespect to the client for
    1) forcing us into this situation, and
    2) never advising us (neither by phone, email or written letter)
    3) having customer service blatantly LIE to us

    I feel I have no choice but to take my business to Bell. I know I’m just one customer, but with my triple package I pay over $1700 / year.

    Perhaps if more of us left Videotron, they would be re-think how they treated their customers.

    Thanks for reading, and please post your stories as well.

    Reply
  6. trey

    Well, weve been looking for a reason to finally drop cable and it seems Videotron will do it for us.

    Honestly, its a question of price vs usage. Do we get our moneys worth?

    We come home from work and then eat and take kids to soccer or judo or swimming.
    The wife unit goes to the gym 3x a week so the few hours we have after work are usually taken up.
    Oh yeah, homework too takes time!!
    Free TV channels is what we watch on cable simply because we want to see what is happening here.
    Kids with their free time during the week adn weekend are on the PS3 or on the Internet if theyre at home.
    TeleToon is THE big channel with them and the only one wed miss.
    We have the RDS, TSN, Sportsnet package and honestly it sucks.
    Poker, dog shows, hotdog eating contests and a few events here and there and for a shift worker the habit of showing NOTHING from midnight to 13h00 but looped 30mins sports news is worse than useless.
    We have a euro (has asia too) satellite dish and watch soccer, basketball, volleyball, handball, waterpolo, tennis, judo, pingpong and many other sports but rarely do.

    When we look at our list of stations from 2 to 38 (loved it when they took out YTV and other stations and still charge the same), we have a few categories:

    -Free stations that you can get for FREE so thats a quarter of them right there. I dont consider paying for something that is free to be any kind of deal. btw, the image is simply stunning on our TV that has no cable.

    -Then you throw in the useless stations that no one has ever watched. Yeah because we cant enoughf of ethnic 14 or whatever it is now showing reruns. Those adds on channel 2. What the hell is on ch 10 and 12?
    -stations that we watch but whose sitcoms can be seen on CTV or GLobal, online or often we just buy whole series on DVD and watch at our convenience. Those are the ABC, FOX,etc..

    -specialty channels. TV5. Ok but never watch it. Vrak? non. Meteomedia? I have an apps on my phone or the computers are always on. Canal D? Nah. RDI? Ok but have online source for news.
    The rehash of series from 23 to 26 is meaningless and while Pravda-CNN is fun to see how brainwashing works is no worse than Fox news.
    LCI news for dummies? Cmon lets get serious. Musique+? Do they still show videos or just reality TV? Art TV? Ok but rarely see anything. Canal Vie? No.

    Oh yeah, I missed THE channel kids and adults like: Discovery.

    Two stations that we would miss then. Not enough reason.
    Also not enough time.

    So were just really waiting for a reason to cancel really because when you look at what we ‘have’ and then what we actually care about and watch, we could very well live without cable.

    My eldest watches Goal TV at his cousin’s but HATES having to wait for a show to be on. He is of the generation where if he wants to see something, its now. Out of his many Youtube subscriptions, he watches sports, tech, games, videos when HE wants. Having to plan to see a show from 14h00 to 14h30 is not something that pleases him.
    His entertainment along with his friends is consumed when they want and where they want.
    He says he doenst care if we get rid of cable as long as we get the ‘superduper’ highspeed internet to compensate.

    So it truly is the beginning of the end of Videotron for us.

    Reply
  7. Anonymous

    I wonder why Videotron doesn’t supply Clear QAM, US cable does that for basic cable (required by law). Then we wouldn’t need a stupid box, and US recording devices could record TV shows (or your computer, if you plug in a DTV USB tuner box)

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      I wonder why Videotron doesn’t supply Clear QAM, US cable does that for basic cable (required by law).

      The fact that it’s required by law is a good indication that cable companies don’t have much incentive to do this on their own. Some Canadian cable companies are looking at clear QAM as a way to replace analog cable service, so that people don’t have to shell out for the full price of a digital set-top box. But otherwise there’s not much reason to use it.

      Reply
  8. Marc

    Steve, just wondering if through your grapevines you’ve heard any news about the end of analog cable at Videotron?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Steve, just wondering if through your grapevines you’ve heard any news about the end of analog cable at Videotron?

      So far nothing. Last I checked 75% of Videotron’s TV subscribers were on digital cable, which means another quarter still has to move over. I haven’t heard anything suggesting an end date for analog cable service in Montreal.

      Reply
  9. Pingback: Videotron doesn’t want to add ICI to analog cable, asks CRTC for exemption | Fagstein

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