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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  • trochevs - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    I am tired of copyright holders bullshit that is going on in Washington. I canceled my SAT TV about 6 months ago and CAT TV about 3 years ago. I am not going to pay for 100 channels in order to watch one. They want me to watch their programs and advertisements. You have to pay me from now on. Let see how much money they will make when other people get fed-up and cancel their accounts! Reply
  • grat - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    Depends on the cable company-- officially, according to FCC regs, if you ask for a cable box with a function Firewire port-- they have to give it to you.

    My cable provider (Cox) is actually pretty reasonable about which channels are flagged "Copy-once" (which equals copy never if you aren't 5c compliant)-- all SD channels are "copy always" and most HD that duplicates SD content is also "copy always"-- and after I complained, they actually unlocked a dozen or so channels that were flagged on the HD side.

    I have a perfectly functional pcHDTV-5500, but it's the backup tuner and I only use it for analog channels right now.
  • Kary - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    I don't understand why Microsoft's Windows Media Center would be affected by cable companies encrypting their QAM signals... Clear QAM isn't supported by Media Center anyway (I have a ClearQAM capable card in my computer..tried in Vista and Win 7... had to read up to find out why it didn't work...just not supported by Microsoft..I think there were 3rd part patches, but I was running Win 7 x64 Beta so....). Reply
  • Sat32blk - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    This is wrong,
    Living in a area where ota reception is next impossible and working in retail electronics, What the cable companies are doing is using DRM and copyright to make money. The laws to protect content providers are being twisted and abused. When the digital conversion started my customers "mostly elderly" came in looking for help how to watch there favorite shows. Some came in with the FCC coupons to get digital converter boxes, those coupon was my and your tax dollars.

    Where I live you have cable or satellite or you only watch two channels. So why would so many cable TV subscribers be looking for digital converter boxes when the FCC mandate didn't even require them to convert there line up to digital? Over and over I heard about the misleading information that was being dispensed by the local cable company "Comcast". How they were on a fixed income and they couldn't afford the increased cost a STB would add to there bill. That comcast said they had to have to get the channels back that were switched to digital. What channels did comcast decide to swap to digital only was it channels no one really cares about. Home Shopping Network, QVC, Telemundo? Nope it was the channels that are watched by the elderly and least technically minded Hallmark channel and MSNBC. Then they flat out lied to them trying to extort more money for STB rentals.

    Every TV, Digital converter box I have sold so people could enjoy the benefits of digital in my area is pretty much useless now.

    The cable companies can do what they want it's there company there stock holders and there name.

    But it's our laws and tax dollars they using to extort revenues

    Call your local Senator and Representative
    demand that digital conversion not be used to extort money
    from people that can't afford it and is sometime there only source
    of entertainment
  • justniz - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    Toss out crappy monkeysoft media center and upgrade to Linux+MythTV.
    I recommend going with a MythTv distro like Mythbuntu rather than rolling your own.
    It can still be a bitch to set up but you only need to do it once then you'll never look back.
  • flashbacck - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    huh? Works for me... Reply
  • ianken - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    "This is not cheap, and brings with it all the disadvantages of not building your own system"

    You'll need to do an edit on this after cedia.
  • chromal - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    The article fails to discuss encryption key cracking. I mean, a 56-bit key doesn't sound like very much; surely, stronger ciphers have been cracked... And if not today, in 18, or 36 months? Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    To be frank, it likely wouldn't take very much. Write something up in CUDA/OpenCL, and a GPU is going to rip through keys like there's no tomorrow; has GTX 280s doing RC5-72 at a rate of 250Mkeys/sec. DES should be even faster.

    But doing this is a DMCA violation, and as opposed to just ripping DVDs it would probably get you send to a nice American prison.
  • chromal - Friday, August 28, 2009 - link

    Apparently, in US courts, ripping DVDs is no longer considered 'fair use' but is, in fact, an 'unlawful' violation of the CSS provisions in the standard. I think we're going to have to increasingly accept that maintaining our rights will take us increasingly into so-called 'unlawful' zones, but, at least to me, an unreasonable law isn't worth respecting. Reply

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