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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  • Sunraycer - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    I have Comcast. I already don't get any EB channels on QCAM, and never did. I get the local stations only. I've also noticed it seems like they are getting ready to start dropping Analog Service.

    The article didn't mention well that we will still get OTA and local channels on Cable. I agree this is much less than we got with Analog. I guess I've just been expecting that for a while.

    I agree that they don't seem to be planning on playing frequency trap games like they did on analog. I think we all know that didn't work well. The QCAM I get doesn't seem to be frequency grouped (I know digital stations aren't ordered by freq like Analog was, but you can look up the digital freq.)

    I agree with most of the authors statements, including the work arounds with analog outputs, except that I don't think HTPC sales / builds will dive a whole lot. I use mine for playing music, watching DVDs, Blu-Ray, online TV....although recording TV TIVO style was really nice. I still do it on local stations....

    I also agree that it's surprising Microsoft isn't more vocal....
    Reply
  • cbuchach - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    I have a great HTPC with two QAM tuners and 2 analog tuners and will be sad to see analog service go, though I have to say I expected something like this, but figured it would a year or two after the digital transition. If it does come to this, I can't say I will even consider cable anymore as I really liked not have a tuner box connected to every TV. So, I would certainly switch over to AT&T service.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    You know, I have Comcast (and an HTPC), but what I do most of the time is just use the Comcase DVR to record stuff. And *that* is my biggest beef. The stupid DVR box has a whopping 80GB hard drive. Are you SERIOUS!? In a day and age where 1TB drives cost less than $100 (often a lot less), we can't get more than an 80GB drive? It's ludicrous, especially when HDTV sucks down about 8GB per hour of content. I'd be perfectly content if there were an easy way (i.e. that didn't get me in trouble with Comcast for cracking the box) to pop in my own HDD. What I usually end up doing is just downloading the episodes off the net for the series that I watch and using my HTPC that way. Don't tell the TV companies.... :-| Reply
  • bsoft16384 - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    Get a TiVo HD.

    It's $13/mo if you buy a year of service at a time, which is cheaper than the Comcast DVR ($16/mo). The box costs about $150 used.

    You can throw a 1TB disk in the TiVo easily, if you're willing to pop the top.

    The first CableCARD from Comcast is free (assuming that you don't have another set-top-box), so you're covered there.
    Reply
  • jbwhite99 - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    Now, in order to watch anything but local channels, you have to have a set top box. This means that you will only get local channels unencrypted, the way I read that. Today, I get extended basic on all of my TVs (ESPN, HGTV, networks), and HD local channels on my HD sets. I don't get ESPN HD/HGTV HD on any set except the one with the cable box.

    I read this to say you must have digital cable, and buy a box for every TV in your house to watch ESPN. Otherwise, you get network only. What this means is that a big advantage cable has (no STB) is gone - if I have to rent from the cable company, why not rent from Direct TV or AT&T?

    To the gentleman who asked about CBS on Hulu - check out tv.com - I think you will find CBS there. TV.com is owned by CBS (they bought out CNET).
    Reply
  • Flyboy27 - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    200+ Channels and still nothing on! I'm going outside! Long live Hulu, I hope Google never buys you. Kudos to ABC and NBC for putting full episodes online. CBS needs to get their heads out of their asses.

    All a cable company or phone company is to me is an internet provider. I can get all the TV I want over the air or online. I don't need a home phone or the actual TV from the cable company.
    Reply
  • chrissp - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    The title of this post is a bit over the top. Not everyone uses an HTPC just to watch cable tv and I very much doubt loosing TV will be an end to the HTPC.

    The beauty of an HTPC is having a PC hooked up to your living room equipment, coupled with a wireless keyboard and mouse you can browse the internet, watch videos on you tube, send email, all from the comfort of your arm chair and on the big screen.

    I have a Media Centre and a Windows home server. My DVD collection has about 600 DVD's all of which are ripped to my homeserver. I then use My Movies to catalogue and organise the collection.

    If I want to watch a film, I can do so quickly and easily, if I want to look at photos or videos I have taken its a simple matter.
    I can also play music from the homeserver to my media centre. Instead of many small devices sitting under my TV I have just one and it can do so much more than all the others.

    Recording live TV is overrated in my opinion. If that goes the HTPC will still be there, but I doubt it will disappear, it will simply become on demand iptv or perhaps other services will spring up to replace them such as FreeView and iplayer in the UK.

    Reply
  • bigboxes - Saturday, August 29, 2009 - link

    Totally agree with you. I use my HTPC the same way. I use it to game, surf the net and play files (movies, tv shows and music) from my file server. I don't bother with tv capture, though I have from time to time in the past. I've got probably three tuner cards in a box somewhere.

    I've got one digital converter box (in the living room) and the other TVs (in the bedroom and the office) use the analog signal that still is provided by Time-Warner. In fact Time-Warner was touting this feature that you wouldn't need to run out and purchase digital converter boxes for your old TVs when all the OTA channels went digital. My monitor has a built in (analog) tuner that I rarely use (though I do have it hooked up to cable).
    Reply
  • justniz - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    >> I very much doubt loosing TV will be an end to the HTPC.

    I totally disagree as I for one am basically the polar opposite of how you think and use HTPC.

    I have a mythbox setup (love linux, hate windows) and nearly all my viewing is recorded tv shows. I hardly ever watch movies more than once so don't bother with owning or ripping DVDs,even though mythbox supports it. If I want to do computer-type activities I prefer the pc in my office than doing it on my tv, partly because 16:10 aspect is better than 16:9 for surfing, and also I'm more comfortably sat at a desk than trying to manage a mouse and keyboard perched on my lap on a couch.
    I actually like the fact my HTPC works more like an appliance than a PC and doesnt have/need a keyboard or mouse.

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

    Yes, that's great for you and the way you specifically use your HTPC, but for me and many others the goal of building an HTPC was to replace TiVos so that you could record and possibly archive your favorite shows AND also have the benefit of doing some of the things you do.

    If it works the way the article is implying then it's a huge lost for the hobby.
    Reply

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