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A Scientific Atlanta-made decoder that allows eligible Americans to receive American Forces Network programming, will be replaced by a smaller, less-expensive model.

A Scientific Atlanta-made decoder that allows eligible Americans to receive American Forces Network programming, will be replaced by a smaller, less-expensive model. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores will no longer require customers who rent satellite decoder boxes to pay with a military-run credit card account.

Starting Friday, cash, checks, credit cards and debit cards, in addition to the military’s own Military Star Card credit card, will all be accepted as payment for renting the decoders. The decoders are needed to receive American Forces Network’s Direct-to-Home satellite service.

However, the new payment options aren’t as convenient as the Star Card.

Those who choose to pay for their rental with a Star Card will still have the rental price — $13 a month — automatically billed to their card monthly. Those bills can be paid online, by mail or by phone.

Customers who use other forms of payment won’t receive a monthly bill or any other notification that payment is due, and must pay in person at the AAFES location at which they signed the rental agreement.

If one of those payments is more than seven days late, AAFES de-authorizes the decoder, effectively cutting off the signal, according to an AAFES memo announcing the change.

Those who choose one of the new billing options can choose either to pay on a monthly basis, or to pay for any number of months in advance. However, the onus is on the customer to remember when their advance payments run out, according to the AAFES memo.

Opinions on the new payment options are mixed.

Staff Sgt. Verlena Fernandes, a soldier based in Darmstadt, Germany, who owns rather than rents a decoder, was happy that more payment options were available to those who want to rent.

She didn’t think it was fair that, in the past, customers who wanted to rent had to have a Star Card in order to watch television. “That’s kind of like forcing a Star Card on someone who doesn’t want one,” she said.

But the requirement that customers who don’t use a Star Card have to remember billing dates on their own was a flop for Claudia Thompson, the training coordinator at Heidelberg’s Army Lodging.

“The average soldier or civilian who’s going to rent it has enough to worry about without having to remember when to pay some rental fee,” she said. “Just no system whatsoever to remind people about their bill? That’s ridiculous.” She said “it just doesn’t make any sense” that AAFES couldn’t do something as simple as send out a mass e-mail.

“And for them not to notify you and just turn it off like that — I’d be pissed,” Thompson said, adding that she’d rather have no television at all than risk having it taken away.

Renters make up just a small fraction of decoder users. Of more than 49,200 decoders in use in U.S. European Command, about 3,100 are rentals, Scott Stover, plans and policy officer for American Forces Radio and Television Service in Alexandria, Va., wrote in an e-mail.

Most users who rent the units are troops who don’t expect to be in Europe long enough to make it worth their while to purchase the system, according to Virginia Weiss, the customer service supervisor at the main exchange in Darmstadt.

Decoders alone cost $279, and satellite dishes, which are needed to capture the AFN satellite signal, cables and installation cost extra.

Only off-base residents use decoders to get AFN. On-base housing and barracks tenants get AFN piped in directly.

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