An End To Unencrypted Digital Cable TV and the HTPC?by Ryan Smith on August 27, 2009 12:00 AM EST
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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 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.