Red Letter Day

Sunday, February 03, 2008

A Cable Conundrum (aka "The Digital Cable TV Primer")

Do you remember the old days? You could just get any old TV and buy it and once you got home, plug it in, hook the cable up from the wall, and you could enjoy dozens of channels of crap from the comfort of your own living room. Life has definitely changed, and spurred on by my local cable company's recent deletion of one of our favorite channels, I have gotten quite an education in the rapidly changing and incredibly complex new world of television. The key thing is, if you want to watch (and especially, record) the boob tube in 2008 and beyond, it takes some real work.

Like most halfway-tuned-in people, I knew that something vague was happening with TV in 2009, that all over-the-air television was going to change from analog (the system used for the past 60 years) into digital. However, I didn't think this really affected me, and in fact, it does not. I mean, who gets their TV over the air in 2008? Libertarians? Everyone I know either has cable or uses a dish.

We have cable, and so I didn't really care. My understanding was that cable TV wasn't affected by this whole analog-to-digital transition. Sure I eventually wanted a cool flat-panel TV set, but I figured I could wait a few wasn't that important. I was happy with my old-fashioned analog cable.

Side note #1: "Digital TV" and "HDTV" are not the same thing. "Digital" refers to the type of signal that comes in over the antenna or cable line. "High definition" refers to the actual size and resolution of the display. You can have a digital signal without high definition, although the reverse is not true - all high definition TV is going to be digital.

Last month, the cable company dropped the Sci-Fi Channel from the cable lineup, quite rudely, without any warning, and of course, without lowering their rates. After some poking around, I discovered they didn't actually drop it, they simply moved its broadcast to digital-only. Furthermore, the Sci-Fi channel was only the first. In the year ahead, many additional channels were going to digital-only. According to the cable company, analog channels take up a lot of room; eliminating one analog channel allows several digital channels to take its place. Eventually, their goal is to broadcast a very limited selection of analog channels (mostly the big networks) and have everything else digital. Unlike their over-the-air brethren, the cable companies are not required by law to switch from analog to digital; rather they choose to do this of their own accord, mostly to gain increased room on their wires for new digital services.

Older TV sets cannot display digital cable by themselves. They need a special decoder box, rented from the cable company, in order to do this. Existing consumer recording devices fail with digital cable as well. This means any VCR or TiVo can't be used to record digital cable without very complex and clunky work-arounds. If you want to keep your existing TV and watch digital cable, your best bet is simply to rent a box from the cable company (and of course pay them extra for that privilege) and forget about using a VCR or TiVo. Cable companies also have their own mediocre TiVo-like DVRs that they will rent you as well, but they are generally of poor quality and are overpriced. Here, you, the consumer run into one of the most unpleasant realities of the new digital cable world: the freedom you used to enjoy of being able to buy TVs, VCRs, TiVos, tuner cards for computers, and so forth and just have them work, out of the box, without paying for anything other then basic cable service, is over....for now

This really sucks. Being forced to rent equipment from the cable company in order to watch even basic digital cable seems like some anti-competitive retrograde policy right out of the old "you have to rent your phone from Ma Bell" monopoly days from long, long ago. And it is. The good news is that the FCC recognizes this and so do most electronics manufacturers. These two parties are going to eventually force America's cable companies to adopt a common standard where you will eventually be able to once again buy any gadget and just have it work with digital cable without needing to rent equipment. The bad news is that these wonderful days are still a couple years away. In the mean time, if you want to enjoy digital cable, you have to rent equipment from your friendly local cable company.

This is true even if you have a brand-spanking new flat panel HDTV with a digital tuner and everything. That's because the digital tuner in your new TV will pick up over-the-air digital TV (the kind you need an antenna for). Some of these new TVs have what is known as a ClearQAM cable tuner as well, which in theory can be used to watch unencrypted digital cable, but for a variety of technical reasons, not really very well (most digital cable is encrypted by the cable company anyway, and the unencrypted digital cable often changes frequencies without warning, making it difficult to find a particular channel). The workaround for these troubles is, of course, the dreaded set-top box...or, a technology called cable cards.

New TiVos, and any decent new TV will support cable cards. These are essentially miniature set-top boxes, about the size of those PC cards that slide into laptop computers. Like set-top boxes, they let you view all digital cable content and you have to rent them from the cable company, but unlike set top boxes these cards slide into the back of the TV, meaning you have one less box to plug in and one less remote control to keep track of. Modern TiVos also use cable cards, which means that for TiVo addicts such as myself, there is a way to use TiVos with digital and HD cable.

There are a couple down sides to cable cards besides the annoying fact that you still have to rent them from the cable company. Cable cards do not support the "interactive" features (like video on demand) that some people want, and the actual installation of the cards can be very tricky. It's still not as easy as the old days of just plugging in a cable and watching TV. Once a cable card is inserted, you have to contact the cable company to "activate" it, and some cable companies insist on having one of their technicians come out to do the install.

Anyway, given the fact that I hate set-top boxes, yet want to watch digital cable, the cable card is the best we've got for right now, and is going to be the gateway to the triumphant return of Stargate Atlantis to my television set.

"Going to be" is the key phrase; Dave and I are currently in the middle of the relatively complex transition to the digital cable world. We've bought a new TiVo, but our new TV hasn't yet arrived (technically, we do not need a new TV, but if we have to update equipment, might as well make the jump to a flat screen and HD at the same time!). So, I can't tell you if everything will work out (ask me in two weeks). However, I have learned a lot, and hopefully this knowledge will be useful to others.

So, anyway, here's the Readers' Digest guide to making the move to digital cable....

1. First, make sure you even have to make the jump. Contact your cable company and ask their schedule for switching from analog to digital. If you are satisfied with your current TV and your cable company is going to keep broadcasting all their channels you watch in analog, then be happy and don't worry!

2. If they are going to make the switch, decide whether you need or want a cable set-top box or not. If you just watch TV without ever recording anything, or if your recording needs are very light, it probably just make sense to rent a DVR or set-top box from the cable company. You can do this whether you keep your existing TV or decide to buy a new flat panel TV. Honestly, most people probably can stop here. This is the easiest way to go, and is your only real choice if you don't want a new TV.

3. If your cable company is going digital, and you do not want a set-top box, or if you are a serious time-shifter (i.e. TiVo fanatic), then you will need to call the cable company and get cable cards. Cable companies are required by the FCC to provide these to subscribers, although they are allowed to charge for them. You will need a new TV (unless your existing set is a decent flat panel set from the past couple years - most of those already have cable card slots).

4. Turn on "American Idol" and decide that you really don't need TV after all.

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  • The Sci-Fi channel needs to catch up with the networks, and offer their episodes online. No Tivo, no digital cable, and no set top box just your laptop and some cables from Radio Shack.

    By Blogger mattjustmull, At 8:06 AM  

  • Consumer Reports and have a great information site on Digital TV. And they set up a way to share your experience with the transition to digital television.

    Click here to learn how to survirve the digital transition

    By Anonymous Francisco, At 2:54 PM  

  • Francisco, thanks for those links, they are good sites, but like many site I have found, they are focused on helping folks who get their TV via antenna rather then via cable.

    The analog-digital cable transition is really a separate (although somewhat related) issue.

    By Blogger Mike, At 4:10 PM  

  • we watch unencrypted digital cable mostly via our dual-QAM tuner Myth box.

    After months of using tv completely and totally under my control at all times, I will simply stop watching via cable rather than rent or purchase equipment that doesn't do what I want. Cableboxes and CableCards both fall into that category.
    Between Netflix and bittorrent, I could care less if cabletv fell off the face of the earth today.

    The local cable company is missing out on at least $8/month of revenue because of this. They just don't understand that their proprietary equipment RUINS my entire home theatre.

    By OpenID robdew, At 12:45 PM  

  • mike,

    this is an excellent descriptive article. I shall be linking to it shortly! :)

    keep the info coming. you write well.


    By Anonymous Srikanth Eswaran, At 2:40 AM  

  • I guess what I am going to have to do in the old days, is drop cable and get an antenna. Wait tell 2 way technology comes afford and you will not need a box. Then I may consider getting cable again or not.

    Here is a work around for those that are using STB. Buy some short audio video cables. Hook them to the output of the converter, the hook the other end to the input of the VCR. They only bad things is you will have to keep it on that channel and can not watch another channel. You will also need to turn off the screen saver, unless you want that recorded.

    One of thing is if the cable company is scrambling qam broadcast of local stations-that is possible a violation of the FCC rules.

    Home owners associations, apartments and closed communities can not forbid you to install a satellite, or antenna. The apartment owner can restrict them but they still have to be allowed to install where it can get a signal even if you contract says other wise. It is a Federal law.

    By Blogger Greg, At 10:15 AM  

  • The cable companies are out to screw us out of our money. In some areas you do not need a cable box and still get 100 or so channels. Why doesnt that apply to the whole state of new nersey.

    By Blogger bignick36, At 3:30 PM  

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