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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  • mrgreenfur - Monday, September 28, 2009 - link

    How much longer before a regular desktop can bruteforce or otherwise break the 56-bit DES? There's an article here about a 6core, 12 thread cpu, think that can dedicate a few cores to breaking DES in real-time? Reply
  • rbpett - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    3 years ago I built my own HTPC - Shuttle PC with Hauppauge WinTV PVR 350. Recorded analog SD channels like a champ with BeyondTV software, and I could skip commercials and even burn to DVD. I knew I wanted to upgrade to HDTV a couple of years ago, but everything I read about cablecard and building my own system was a dead end. So eventually I got HDTV, and bought a TiVoHD series 3. TiVo did everything I wanted except for 1 thing - use iTunes. Since I got the TiVo HD they have added the following services:
    Netflix "Watch Now" instant streaming (including HD content), Amazon Unboxed, Youtube (don't use) plus some other streaming services. The Netflix thing is very cool. Plus I can add storage via eSATA external drive. My only issue now is the TiVo's starting to freeze up on me on some HD channels, which seems to be a problem with FIOS/TiVo - I'm currently trying to solve.

    I wanted so bad to use my Shuttle setup with a Cablecard solution, but none exist. Oh well. Maybe MS will push their weight around with the FCC and get something going.
    Reply
  • nilepez - Sunday, August 30, 2009 - link

    People won't be able to create their own videos, so they'll go out to torrent sites and download them.

    there's nothing wrong with Hulu, but the quality isn't very good (not even on a PC). For some it will suffice. for those that care about quality, it will not.
    Reply
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  • bpt8056 - Friday, August 28, 2009 - link

    http://www.engadgethd.com/2009/08/28/clear-qam-hd-...">http://www.engadgethd.com/2009/08/28/clear-qam-hd-...

    ClearQAM is here to stay!
    Reply
  • glugglug - Saturday, August 29, 2009 - link

    Just because it's illegal doesn't mean the Cable Companies don't get away with it.
    I don't get all my broadcast channels in ClearQAM with Time Warner Cable.
    Proof:
    http://www.silicondust.com/hdhomerun/lineup_web/US...
    http://www.silicondust.com/hdhomerun/lineup_web/US...
    Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Saturday, August 29, 2009 - link

    Not really. If I just wanted my local OTAs, I could put up an antenna and save $50/month on a cable bill.

    The vast majority of people subscribe to cable TV for the non-OTA networks; things that are on the EB tier and beyond. Not being allowed to scramble OTAs has no impact on the fact that EB is going to require a STB/CableCARD. ClearQAM is going to be made redundant unless all you're subscribing to cable for is better OTA reception.
    Reply
  • atomicbloke - Friday, August 28, 2009 - link

    Well, all I watch TV is for Live Sports from around the world. Football on local channels, Hockey on Versus, Soccer on GolTV and ESPN... sometimes I record the games on my HTPC to watch later..

    I don't watch any shows, so Hulu is of no use to me...

    I don't mind paying for all the sports channels I watch, but I do mind paying for a TV. I want to watch everything on my PC.

    Guess, this move will hit people like me, who only watch live sports...
    Reply
  • glugglug - Friday, August 28, 2009 - link

    I actually get about 10 less channels in ClearQAM than I do from an ATSC antenna, with Time Warner Cable.

    The cable companies claims that they are running out of bandwidth are a load of crap. If they really were short on bandwidth, here are some trivial changes they could make:

    1) Stop sending multiple versions of the same channels in tons of different qualities. I receive NY1 in 1080p, 640p, and analog. I receive the Direct Shopping Network (or something like that) in 720p, 640p, 512x384, and 320x240 (yes, iPod resolution), and analog, and about 5 other low quality versions.
    2) Use mpeg4 or H.264. The FCC standards for ATSC and QAM TVs say they must be capable of decoding H.264. But every digital station I get from from Time Warner is in MPEG-2, including the encrypted channels (can't decrypt the content, but the format info is sent in the clear).
    Reply
  • gplracer - Friday, August 28, 2009 - link

    I have a tv tuner on my computer. I also have a 24" monitor so watching tv is not bad. I actually watch more Hulu than comcast with this setup. I would love to build a HTPC and watch Hulu on my 65" tv. I think we will really see less people using HTPCs if Blu-ray players start to support Hulu. It would be smart for the makers of this players because it would help get blu-ray in more homes. Othwise I might build a HTPC with blu-ray support. Reply

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