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Big Cable Wants to Encrypt Your Basic Channels – How To Fight For Your Rights


Posted 23rd February in Other Technology, Television. 1 Comment

For those not familiar with the current state of digital television, cable providers send signals to your house in a format called QAM. This comes in two flavors, Encrypted and Unencrypted formats. Encryption is used to protect channel content from general viewership so that cable operators can sell these packages and/or individual channels based on a decryption device at the home.

The FCC currently has a ban in place on the encryption of the “Basic” level of cable service. This includes such channels as ABC, NBC, Fox, PBS, etc. It is a good way for low-income or budget conscious consumer to buy the basic level of service if they can not receive these channels over the air, possibly because of interference or distance to broadcasting towers. You do not currently need to rent a cable box (aka decryption device) to see these channels, ensuring broad access to these channels which often perform public service functions such as notification in case of emergency, carrying signals from the emergency broadcast system, or also community television stations.

This is a good thing. It allows citizens to purchase a very cheap (I paid $12.99/mo) cable plan to receive these essential stations without the purchase of any decryption boxes from the cable company (which they force you to rent from them, I might add).

The Cable Companies Want Your Money

Photo credit zeusandhera

The cable companies are, and have been, lobbying the FCC to remove this encryption ban. The FCC has a proposed plan of rule making for removing this ban on encryption. The big cable providers are lobbying for this ban removal on a couple of major points:

  • Encrypting all channels will allow them to remain “hot” at the consumer end,
  • It will reduce service technician calls because of the above,
  • It will reduce or eliminate cable theft.

What they do not mention is that:

  • You will need to buy a cable adapter (either box-top or Cablecard) for each TV in your home.

The cable companies are profit driven (this is OK) and, while I admit this may reduce service calls to your home, they also have other methods of being able to deliver this service “hot” including IP-based television distribution. This is simply a cheaper way for them to use their existing technologies to maximize their profits, while maintaining a facade that they are doing this for consumers’ benefit.

Based on my own television bill and the number of televisions that an average consumer has in their home (3), I estimate that an existing basic television consumer would receive a 92% increase to their cable bill for the same exact content. (Source)

Fighting The Good Fight

Several “new” television technology companies, such as Boxee and Hauppauge Computer Works (makers of Unencrypted QAM tuner cards) are fighting this rule change, along with the EFF, to allow consumers to continue to receive these basic television channels in the unencrypted format. While Boxee and Hauppage have their own profit motives, they are actively working to promote new technologies to bring a variety of TV content into your home.

Boxee and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association have been going tête à tête over the issue. Boxee is obviously making a play where its Boxee Box uses Unencrypted QAM to receive television stations while the NCTA represents the cable companies who want you to continue to pay your cable providers.

How to Weigh In

I urge all consumers of Cable TV to weigh in on the issue, but especially if you utilize Unencrypted QAM format to watch broadcast TV. The Cable Industry says that the number of consumers who use unencrypted QAM is negligible, so we need to show the FCC that we are in fact, not a negligible party to deal with.

The FCC is accepting comments on this proposed change to the rules.

Here is a listing of all comments on this proposed elimination of the ban on the encryption of the basic tier of service from the FCC.

The best way is to write a short letter to the FCC. Here is the letter that I wrote.

Then proceed to the FCC’s page for submitting a filing. For the proceeding number, use 11-169. Type in your information and attach the letter you wrote (I recommend sending as a PDF). After submitting, the FCC reviews the submission and places it on their website.

Together, we can fight the cable companies

The only way they know that we are not happy with this proposed rule change is by commenting on this to the organization who makes the rules, the FCC.

Please send them your thoughts! It should only take about 15 minutes of your time and you will feel great about participating in the rule making process.


Originally posted 20120223 and last touched 20120223
Dave Drager+ is the Chief Technology Officer at XDA-Developers, where he keeps the server farm running efficiently for millions of visitors per day. He has written previously for the technology blogs Lifehacker and MakeUseOf.


  • Guest

    Awesome, and thanks for the template to send to the FCC.