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

cable-box

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.

Xbox 360 Windows Media Center Extender Demo

xbox-360-windows-media-center-extender

After I ditched cable TV, I used both Snapstream’s BeyondTV and SageTV (now owned by Google) to sate my and my family’s television needs. After almost 2 years we ended up turning cable back on. Win one for the cable company!

But that did not end my search for the perfect home television system. Our cable box, well, works; but the hard drive is limited, you have to pay $15.99/mo for it, and the recordings are only on one device.

Luckily I found the DCR-2650 (currently $122 at amazon) which allows you to rent a CableCARD from the cable company (I’m paying $3.99/mo from Verizon) and get all of the premium cable channels on your PC – the drawback is that you must use Windows Media Center due to the DRM (there is a hack for SageTV – more on that later).

We recently got an Xbox 360 for Christmas, and I’ve been wanting to try the Media Center Extender functionality on it. I’m happy to report it works really well! Here is a video with a quick walkthrough of the Media Center Extender experience on the Xbox 360.

Some notes on the setup:

  • My Media Center PC & Xbox are both connected via gigabit wired network
  • Live TV, Guide and DVR functionality work perfectly
  • Have had issues with Movie playback. This is because the Xbox is limited in what codecs it can decode. Apparently the Windows Media Center Extender app does not use the same codecs as the Xbox media player app.
  • You could use as many Xboxes as you want, so essentially you have a free number of DVRs in your home
  • The DCR-2650 uses a single cable card but has 2 tuners. This means you are limited to 2 channels at a time of live TV or recording shows. You could easily continue to add tuners if you would like more.
  • The Windows Media Center app is available directly on the main Xbox menu that pops up when you hit the Xbox button on your controller/remote

The quality of the video coming from the Media Center Extender is significantly better compared to the “LiveTV” streamed over the internet – also from Verizon.

If Microsoft and Verizon is serious about making their streaming live TV app commonplace in consumer’s homes, they will need to both up the quality of the video and also add DVR functionality to the system.

Between how well it works and the fact that you can get a remote for the Xbox, it really makes an ideal replacement for your cable box.

The Fight To Lower Your Cable Bill: Online Live Streaming Television In Jeopardy

The ivi.tv interface. Includes channel guide, DVR, and more.

First, a bit of history.

Cable TV started in the 1970s when TV consumers just outside the range of commercial Over The Air (OTA) broadcasts banded together to create community “Cable” TV systems. An antenna was posted at a high spot on a mountain and pulled in signals that were out of range for households, then retransmitted those signals to subscribers. At the time, there was a fight by the commercial television stations to protect their content, but eventually the cable systems won out, and eventually evolved to be the mega-cable companies you see today. In fact, today cable companies and content companies are one-in-the-same.

Fast forward to today. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an internet television station that would take OTA broadcast signals and retransmit them over the internet to households that couldn’t receive that signal? Well, there is and its name is ivi.tv.

The ivi.tv interface. Includes channel guide, DVR, and more.

The user experience was great. The stations came in at high quality and live, something that today’s streaming world is sorely missing. It was only about $10 per month, and you received the major broadcast stations. There was only one problem – the current content owners and cable systems (rightly) see this as a threat to their existing cable based systems, as the same exact TV content can be transmitted through their own internet lines and therefore cannibalism their TV revenue stream. ivi.tv was sued by over 40 major broadcasts and stations, and was forced to take their live streams of CBS, ABC, NBC offline. The very life of ivi.tv and other internet live TV streaming companies is threatened. They want to squash innovation in live streaming TV.

ivi’s CEO Todd Weaver has said this:

“Broadcasters fought against cable companies, then joined them. Broadcasters then fought against satellite companies, then joined them. Now it is our turn. History has a habit of repeating itself — and it is unfortunate they cannot learn from that and realize we strongly support broadcasters and their program suppliers helping them monetize, increase their eyeballs, and ultimately get paid.” (Source)

He’s right. This is the future of live television, and the existing hegemony of cable systems and content creators is fighting it tooth and nail. They have enough money to throw into lawsuits to delay it forever.

So what can you do about this?

The case against ivi.tv is currently working its way through the court system. Whatever is the decision on this court case is going to be used as prior ruling on future cases. I can’t even begin to describe how important it is that ivi wins their case. The odds are stacked up against them. With limited funds, there is no way they can fight the courts forever. Donate money to their cause here, and tell your friends about this innovative service that is being crushed by the big cable companies.

Everyone complains about the high price of cable television. You want alternatives? Support, share and talk about this court case and the future of online television.

Additional Reading:

Thoughts On the Google TV Platform

googletv

Just watched the Google IO stream regarding the release of Google TV.  My thoughts:

Good:

  • The platform is open. This is the way to go, and will allow developers to go hog wild and develop things that even the Google engineers couldn’t envision.
  • TV/Web Integration. The Google TV platform appears to have great web and video integration, including live TV. The overlays look beautiful and web/TV switches effortlessly. But that basically makes it WebTV.
  • Working with hardware partners. This gives the platform a much better chance of seeing the light of day. It appears they are working with Sony, Dish, Logitech and other hardware companies.
  • The Android market. Integration with this means you already have tons of apps at your disposal on your system.
  • Search integration. Will make it easy to find both local and online content.

Bad:

  • Needing an existing cablebox to bring in live TV. This is an uncessessary step – you should be able to bring in Live TV streams using a CableCard. Could support for this be forthcoming?
  • Uses existing TV infrastructure. The future is in IP TV.

Questions:

  • How expensive will the box be and will it be available from cable/satellite providers? If available from television providers (at least Dish) then it will be available for a monthly ‘rental’ fee. If Google tries to sell this as a stand-alone product, ala Tivo, it will be a bigger up-front cost that many consumers are not used to paying. However, Google may be able to make this cheaper than we think, because they subsidize services from ad revenue. Advertisers are willing to pay for information such as what viewers are watching. Google will be sitting on a goldmine of data.
  • How will this impact other “Television” set tops such as Tivo, BeyondTV, Boxee, MythTV? It greatly depends on adoption rates, cost and utility.

Regarding the issue with the existing TV infrastructure, this product could be revolutionary. I’m not sure if this is because they are trying to avoid stepping on the big cable providers toes but with a device like this the existing cable network is unnecessary. Google owns a lot of fiber, and therefore a lot of bandwidth. They could offer their own live IPTV offering, and it could be available directly on the Google TV platform. This is probably where they are aiming to go in 2 or more years. Its prohibitive to many companies at a reasonable rate because the cost to stream high definition television to many homes is great.

YouTube essentially already has the infrastructure in place for IPTV. They already have the ability to stream any live video stream in fairly decent quality. I imagine what is holding them back if the agreements with the content providers (channels) like Discovery, MTV, NBC Universal, etc. If the old don’t get on board soon, they will be in 5-10 years where the newspaper industry is now.

I am looking forward to what the Google TV platform is going to offer. A bonus would be if you could run it on additional hardware other than hardware offered by Sony or other companies. Since it is open source, this is a distinct possibility and we could see a lot come from this, even if the hardware itself proves unsuccessful. There is one thing Google has a lot of — vision — and it would be great to see that on your television.

HBO GO Online Streaming Video Review and Screenshots

Movie Menu

HBO GO has been in the works for a while now, and is an indication of what some networks are trying to do to add value to their subscription rate. Offering video for streaming online is definitely a benefit to a premium channel like HBO. And it is a glimpse as to what the future of online video will hold.

I recently got rid of my cable box and implemented a do-it-yourself solution. Since HBO is a premium channel and encrypted, they force you to either buy a cable box via subscription or also a cable-card (which they also charge for). This actually gives me a unique perspective on the service: would I pay for HBO to receive the HBO GO online only offering? Read more

Replacing the Cable Box – Boxee and Live HD TV with the Acer Revo 3610

The packaging for Acer Revo 3610

This post is now quite old. Boxee has been purchased by Samsung and no longer offers software for replacing your cable box. If you are actually looking to replace your cable box, I recommend using a game system like the Xbox One and then using various apps to replace TV channels. I actually use the Verizon Fios app which has most of the channels I would get with a cable box. To fill out the other channels, I use Windows Media Center and Plex.

Gone is my 500+ channel television subscription along with the required boxes necessary to decode all of that content. The DVR, which has been a mainstay of my family’s television viewing habits, has been ousted. In it’s place is a kick-ass system that keeps the DVR functionality for many of the TV shows that we usually watch, brings in much new content, and also saves me a few bucks each month.

Let’s face it, you don’t want all of the content that your cable provider offers. Cable providers have fought a-la-carte programming tooth and nail for this very reason. Much of it is specialty programming, and though I admit it is nice to know it was there, my family and I rarely watched any of it. My new setup brings many new sources as well as a CHOICE to what you want to view. I am very happy with the results so far. Read more

Operation Replace Cable Programming and HD DVR Box – Part 1 – The Plan

I’ve decided to replace my cable plan and DVR box with something a little more… functional.

Sure we get a ton of channels from Verizon FiOS, but we hardly ever watch them. Our television viewing habits mainly consist of a few programs that my wife watches and a few programs that I watch, but we almost never watch them live. We typically DVR them and then watch them on our own time. For the few instances where we would like to watch live TV, for example when a Penn State game is on, we would like to be able to watch that. Normally the games are on ABC/NBC/Fox so premium cable channels such as ESPN aren’t necessarily needed. There will be some instances where a game may only be available on the Big 10 network or some other premium channel, but honestly I am not that big into sports and the times that this might occur will be few and far between, maybe 1 or 2 times a year, which I can deal with. Read more