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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  • fic2 - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    Not sure why people think that CableCARDs are dieing. As far as I know every new cable box that is coming out now uses them. Reply
  • medi01 - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    As, for example, in Germany cabel providers "went digital" quite some time ago. Reply
  • Scali - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    Indeed, here in The Netherlands it's the same. Everyone gets the digital channel for free, along with their analog channel, but all channels are encrypted. Officially, you need a TV card with support for CI+ and then use an CI+ module and an Irdeto2 card from the cable company to decrypt it.
    Unofficially, no TV card supports CI+ yet, as far as I know... but there is one regular CI module which happens to work with the Irdeto2 card, even though it is not officially supported (the AlphaCrypt). There have been rumours for quite a while that the AlphaCrypt will be actively blocked, but so far it still works.
    Reply
  • mmaenpaa - Friday, August 28, 2009 - link

    Yep,

    In Finland we only DVB-C/T (and of course DVB-S). Analog is gone. All the regular channels are "free" (Actually TV is not free, if you have a TV set you need to pay yearly around 230€ (=about 322$ US), this is practicaly a tax). You can buy different channel packets from your cable operator if you want extra. I am using http://www.team-mediaportal.com/">http://www.team-mediaportal.com/ mediaportal. So maybe they can block the HTPC in USA but here it is just another receiver. You just order a service and use a smart card for the service. Seems weird if it wouldn't work in USA? Are the cable operators so afraid of hackers? Actually I was under theimpression that this is the reason why Microsoft Media Centers do not support DVB-C (difital cable).

    markku
    Reply
  • vittu - Sunday, August 30, 2009 - link

    Finland is actually a bit more complicated case. Yes, you can watch the limited amount of SDTV channels on cable after you paid your yearly household TV-licence fee (and if not the law abiding type, even without, for this the HTPC is the best cover), but try to have the HDTV delivered, and it gets very complicated. First of all you need approved HD-CableReady TV-set. The approved models are more expencive (compare the prices of Samsung LE40B750 (not approved), and identical LE40B755 (approved)). The cable provider (Welho) registers the serial number of your TV-set, and then rents you the CA-modul with Conax Chipset Pairing (so add to the TV-licence fees the extra monthly 3.90 (rent) + 25,90 (HDTV package). Finally you adjust everything, pick the favorite channels, delete the channels you do not use, etc. The next morning your channels are reverted to the "normal", as the cable company has been checking the Conax Chipset Pairing. You try to switch off the updating function, change the locking code, lock all the deleted channels with a kids lock, nothing helps. They are like zombies back next morning. But this is just an approved TV-set i'm talking about. HTPC will under such circumstances and regulations never become approved = legally accepted in Finland for HDTV. So the question about the cable operators being afraid of hackers is moot in Finland. You are supposed to get what you paid for (TV-licence fee) for "free". For everything else you pay, and even if you are willing to pay for HDTV, your HTPC will not be accepted. Reply
  • James5mith - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    I know I might be dating myself, but the "Cable Ready" decision was a big win for the consumer. It forced cable companies to allow their expanded basic to be available to anyone with a "cable ready" TV, without forcing them to use a STB. This meant that they couldn't force you to purchase a STB to watch TV.

    It seems this is very cyclical. People fight for the cable companies to "free" TV, and win, then it's forgotten. It happened in the 80's, it happened in the 90's, and now it looks like it will skip a decade, because the American populace doesn't care enough anymore to even try and fight.
    Reply
  • wolf550e - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    [quote]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 "if", not "when" this will happen.[/quote]

    You meant "when, not if".

    Reply
  • BrooksT - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    It seems clear that cable companies, at the behest of old media companies, want to keep computers and cable TV separate. It's not unlike what's going on in newspapers right now. It's idiotic, but hey, if they want to detach their business model from the internet, it's their foot to shoot.

    As others have noted, Hulu and similar companies will negotiate alternative delivery agreements with the content producers, and the cable companies will be left as increasingly irrelevant middlemen and, ultimately, providers of commodity bandwidth service.

    Also, a note to the author: you wanted "downside", not "opportunity cost." An opportunity cost is something you can't do because you chose to do something else (i.e., if you only have ten minutes on a break, the opportunity cost of reading Anandtech is that you can't read Ars).
    Reply
  • faxon - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    if we could just watch hulu instead for everything, tv would cease to exist in its current form. what im curious to know is if it will be possible to buy an add in card which complies with everything the cable companies may implement so that you can use it the same way you would a normal set top box. sure, the cost of it will suck, but preventing it entirely will loose them customers Reply
  • AmishElvis - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    It looks like in a year or two we will be able to watch everything on Hulu. I think we are witnessing the last gasps of cable TV. At some point the cable companies will end up being ISPs and nothing else. Reply

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