For those of you with cable TV service, for some time now you've been witnessing the slow transition of cable TV from a pure analog service to a pure digital service. With cable systems finally at their limits for bandwidth, within the last year the cable companies have finally begun what has been dubbed the "analog reclamation" - removing analog channels from their service and replacing them with digital versions that require 1/6th (or less) the bandwidth. Because the reclamation involves removing analog versions of most for-cost channels (what's commonly called the Expanded Basic tier), the reclamation has been tied with the deployment of Digital Transport Adapters - low-cost cable boxes that are little more than a basic QAM tuner attached to an RF modulator. This has allowed cable companies to reclaim this space without deploying otherwise very expensive Set Top Boxes to every TV at an affected household.

A side effect of this has been that computer TV tuner users, such as HTPC owners who in the analog age were accustomed to getting access to the EB tier on their computers with a simple analog TV tuner, were able to access those same channels in their digital form using ClearQAM-capable tuners. This is because the FCC mandated that the security mechanism be separate from the STBs, which gave rise to the continually problematic CableCARD. In the name of cost, DTAs do not have the ability to use CableCARDs, and as such do not meet the separable security requirements. Ultimately this required cable operators to put the digital versions of their EB tiers in the clear if they wanted to use DTAs, and this is why ClearQAM tuners can exist in a useful manner.

That age, however short it was, looks to be coming to a close. DTAs may be little more than a basic QAM tuner, but that "little more" is that they support a very basic form of encryption - a 56bit DES-based cypher known as Privacy Mode - which would allow them to receive and decrypt lightly encrypted channels. The FCC separable security mandate has previously prevented Privacy Mode from being used, but we have known for some time that cable companies and device manufacturers were looking to get a waiver for DTAs. In effect they have been soliciting the FCC for permission to encrypt all EB tier channels with Privacy Mode, so that reception would be limited to DTAs and CableCARD devices.

The FCC has granted their request.

The ramifications are two-fold. For the cable companies, once they implement this Privacy Mode across the board they will no longer have to install and maintain expensive signal traps to keep customers on lower tiers such as Limited Basic from accessing additional channels. For computer/HTPC users, this is an end to being able to directly receive EB tier channels with any kind of commonly available digital tuner. Privacy Mode is not open for licensing, and CableLabs will not license CableCARD for any kind of open (read: not locked down to hell and back) tuner. This means ClearQAM tuners made by ATI, Hauppauge, SiliconDust, and others would no longer be useful for receiving EB tier channels.

For pure digital reception on computers/HTPCs, what would be left would be two things. One would be fully licensed systems that implement head-to-toe DRM, the only way that CableLabs will license CableCARD for computers. This is not cheap, and brings with it all the disadvantages of not building your own system. The other would be utilizing the Firewire output of some STBs, but such STBs can be hard to acquire and the FCC allows broadcasts to include a copy-never (5C) flag that disables this output.

The last option would be to take advantage of the analog hole left by the component video output of STBs, using devices such as Hauppauge's HD PVR that can redigitize the output of STBs for importing into a computer. The drawback of this is a loss of quality due to an analog generation being included in the process, and whatever pitfalls that come from using the STB such a device would be attached to. None of these options are as simple and cheap as things stand today with a ClearQAM tuner.

At this point there's no reason to believe that cable companies won't deploy Privacy Mode across their networks, so it's a matter of "when", not "if" this will happen. It goes without saying that if you're currently enjoying the use of a ClearQAM tuner to receive EB tier channels, you'll want to enjoy what time you have left, and look into other solutions for the long-haul. At this pace, it looks like cable TV and computers will soon be divorcing.

On a final note, the loss of ClearQAM access is likely going to be followed by the loss of some fraction of the HTPC market, where users will not find as much value in a device that can no longer watch or record live TV from their cable company. Because of this potential nosedive in the HTPC market, I would be very surprised if Microsoft stayed entirely mum on the issue. They've put a lot of effort into Windows Media Center as a TV viewing platform and HTPC suite over the years, and this drives a stake right through that given the low adoption of CableCARD systems. Microsoft has been diversifying their TV operations over the years by getting satellite companies on-board and making some investments in IPTV/Internet TV, but cable TV is too big to ignore if Microsoft wants to keep pushing WMC. What this may lead to is anyone's guess, but unless they're going to drop the emphasis on TV viewing with WMC something will need to happen to keep WMC relevant in the cable TV space.

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  • archcommus - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    I think your article may be a little misleading. So you're telling us that the little DTA boxes they deploy will now be able to decrypt, so it's easier for them to encrypt EB tier channels that they move from analog to digital. This could spell the end of receiving EB tier channels on a computer TV tuner. However, you act as if this kills HTPC TV viewing entirely. What about local stations? As far as I understood, they are required to provide these in the clear, and in most areas are even in HD in the clear. This will not be changing, correct? That is all I really ever expected to receive with ClearQAM anyway. Yes, losing analog stations is a bummer, but most of my recording is local HD. Maybe eventually there will be an external CableCARD-ready tuner that will work with a home built PC...maybe. Reply
  • Spivonious - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    They also fail to mention that digital expanded basic channels are already encrypted, at least on my local Comcast (PA). The only QAM channels I can receive are the basic basic channels (the networks + a couple of others). All of my analog channels already have digital equivalents and since I only subscribe to basic basic (don't watch much TV), this move of expanded basic to digital will not affect me. And is renting a box for $2 a month really that much? Reply
  • BigLan - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    Same thing for me. All I've ever been able to get with qam is the locals + a couple more. It's whatever is on the basic cable package.

    I didn't know there were any cable providers sending enhanced basic channels in clear qam. All that I'd heard was cablecos moving channels from the EB tier to a digital tier so that you ned a STB to get it, but the cable market is so fragmented I'm sure there are some areas where this happens.

    I think the reality is that everyone will be forced to using STBs in the future for cable TV. The only reason we're not already there is that the cable industry is keeping analog on life support - they could have turned it off at the OTA transition and forced everyone to move to STBs.
    Reply
  • erikstarcher - Monday, August 31, 2009 - link

    Using a HDHomeRun I get all of the basic, expanded, and local HD channels. Comcast in Baltimore, MD. Everything from ESPN to Discovery is broadcast in the clear and in digital. The only things I don't get are the pay channels, and the expanded HD channels. If Comcast starts encrypting everything but local, I will be screwed. I want the ability to watch something on the TV in by bedroom that was recorded in the living room. Comcast doesn't offer that ability on their DVR's, and FIOS isn't available yet. Reply
  • rdominique - Thursday, September 10, 2009 - link

    Ditto for me in Montgomery County Maryland. I am enjoying it now and hope it doesn't end anytime soon. If it does then it is bye bye to cable. Do the cable companies realize how much of their customer base they will alienate if they render all digital tuners in expensive HDTVs and computers useless? Reply
  • jmurbank - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    I disagree what you are saying because my cable company is private compared to companies like Comcast. I still get analog channels and including free HD channels. For digital cable channels, I have to use a cable box which is no problem for me.

    If you are just recording a TV show, who cares about the quality. If you care for quality you will not be watching TV because you will be using satellite or using rental services.

    If you really want to know about digital cable, it is just a re-encoded data in MPEG-2 that the cable company receives from their satellite system. Basically who cares about quality at this point since you are already getting something that is being re-encoded and using a Hauppauge PVR will not be any different. At least it will be recorded instead of being missed and being a slave for re-runs. Though if an on demand service from your cable provider or hulu.com contains your TV show, why in the hell are you recording it.

    If you do not like your cable provider, start standing up and stir the waters.
    Reply
  • hifiaudio2 - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    I am with Jmurbank... My understanding is that local channels (local HD) are broadcast in the clear, always, by law. That is all I care about so this has no effect on me.
    Reply
  • Rindis - Monday, August 31, 2009 - link

    I'm trying to think of a single local channel I care about....

    Nope. Doesn't help.
    Reply
  • lonndoggie - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    Same here. Whatever I can get OTA is what they offer, and that's fine. However, they also still have a very full range of analog stuff, which I also capture with an analog capture card. If that stuff goes away, then there's a bummer. Reply
  • djc208 - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    I'd like to think that some enterprising company will figure out a loophole for this just like the HD-PVR, but we'll see.

    I do agree that for HTPC people like myself this reduces my desire to keep cable TV. Not having multiple tuner boxes and the trouble of controlling them is one of the reasons I stay with cable. This cutoff could have a lot of us re-consider cable over satelite.

    I also have to wonder how long until the TV manufacturers just stop offering anything other than a OTA tuner in TVs. CQAM and analog tuners are going to be useless, the Cable companies never really liked Cable Card and so it's died a slow death, to the point that most current TVs don't offer a cablecard socket any more. Other than OTA there will be few users who will not need some sort of box at this point to get their content.

    If we're lucky the TV companies will push to get some sort of universal control scheme such as over HDMI, so that you don't need seperate or programmable remotes to use your TV/box combo.



    Reply

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