Digital Cable TV, Still Stuck Inside the Box

Many of Comcast's customers in Maryland will soon be shifted to digital cable.
Many of Comcast's customers in Maryland will soon be shifted to digital cable. (By Mike Mergen -- Bloomberg News)
By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, October 4, 2009

Television as millions of Americans have known it for decades is undergoing a radical change as it shifts to a new digital system.

No, you're not watching a rerun of the digital-TV transition that ended analog over-the-air broadcasts in June. This time, cable subscribers -- the vast majority of U.S. viewers -- have to make the shift. In the Washington area, they include many Comcast customers in Maryland, while subscribers to RCN completed the transition earlier this year. (Cox is holding off on this move.)

Like the DTV transition, cable's digital conversion comes with unanticipated issues that will upset some viewers. Unlike the DTV transition, most of these issues could have been avoided.

For cable operators, moving from analog to digital has a simple appeal. They can carry many more channels -- Comcast says it can provide two to three high-definition digital channels or 10 to 15 standard-def digital channels for every analog channel -- just as wireless-phone carriers could support far more users after going digital.

For consumers, the potential benefits are harder to find. They can get more channels for the same price as before -- as is the case with Comcast analog viewers making this forced upgrade. But they're not getting the option of lower rates for the same channels as before, much less paying only for the ones they like.

Analog subscribers moving to digital also lose the ability to watch TV without an extra box and remote in the way they once could with a "cable-ready" analog TV. These digital boxes may not cost extra (Comcast gives its analog subscribers three free digital-cable adapters) but they add clutter and can complicate TV viewing.

For that problem, you can blame cable operators' failure to set and support a digital-cable-reception standard. In the process, they've given up a competitive advantage over rival TV services and ensured that one of the most broken consumer-electronics markets around will stay broken for years.

So far, no fewer than three digital-cable technologies have failed to usher the cable box and its button-strewn remote from most living rooms.

The first, QAM (it stands for "quadrature amplitude modulation"), costs little to support and so comes with nearly every digital TV and DTV-tuner-equipped video recorder. In theory, a QAM tuner can receive any non-premium channel.

In practice, however, nearly all offerings other than local, public, educational and government channels arrive scrambled and unwatchable through QAM, owing to Hollywood's paranoia about shows being shared online. (Never mind that this encryption doesn't stop shows from being shared online.) And the channels you can get often appear with random channel assignments.

For example, a year-old, QAM-equipped HDTV hooked up to a Comcast digital-cable feed in Arlington found only 61 channels -- about one-fifth of those available with a cable box -- and displayed most under weird, five-digit channel numbers such as C-SPAN's 89.301.

A second flawed standard, CableCard, receives encrypted programming and premium channels but doesn't always work with profitable interactive services such as on-demand video. This, too, has gone nowhere, thanks to spotty support by cable operators; for instance, many make viewers wait at home for a technician to show up and plug in the card. As a result, electronics manufacturers have walked away from the technology. Two years after the Federal Communications Commission required that cable operators use CableCards in their own boxes, the 10 largest cable operators had only set up some 443,000 CableCards in customers' own video hardware, compared with about 16.7 million cable boxes deployed in the same time.

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