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I Hate Linux

Friday, May 27, 2005

Midco: Bastards, or 'Encrypted Cable, How I Hate Thee'

Years ago you had an option with cable, you could lease or buy a cable box, or plug the cable line right into your cable ready TV or VCR and you'd have easy control of it.

Such is no longer the case.

We've all heard about digital television and how it will be replacing the old analog stuff over time and already that is the case as in many areas you can pick up your local stations over the air, provided you have a decent antenna and a digital television receiver. For some (like me), ones TV has this receiver built in and one just needs to plug in a good antenna or source instead of an expensive box.

You'd think the same would be said for cable.

Over the air digital television channels are broadcast with a modulation method called 8VSB, over the cable lines they use QAM (there are many different versions of QAM and different networks use different version, in the end if your demodulator can handle one QAM it can handle just about all of em) and satellite TV like DirecTV and EchoStar use QPSK. No matter the modulation method in use, they are all sending MPEG2 transport streams, in some cases there are differences with regards to the actual data being sent, specific to the network (especially on satellite).

Where is this going? If you buy a TV today, even one with a built in decoder that supports QAM (like mine), chances are you wont be able to get digital programming

Why is this? You see, many cable operators tend to encrypt all of their digital programming and require you to lease (or buy) a receiver from them that handles the decryption their way, rather than let industry standard equipment do the job.

There is an alternative though, if your TV supports a 'Digital Cable Ready' (DCR) card. The basic concept being that you treat a TV like a satellite receiver, give it a way to communicate with the (potentially) proprietary cable network and still let the cable company control your access to programming in ways never before possible.

Of course, if your TV doesn't support DCR cards... then you are pretty well SOL and are required to use their box.

What does this mean? For the most part, it means that the cable company controls what sorts of accessories you can use. Want to record a digital program off of cable? Better have a box you got from them, otherwise your chances are pretty slim.

For years TV tuner cards have been very popular on the PC. Back in college, my PC was my TV as at the time I didn't even have a low quality TV. One need simply plug their cable line in and it's all set. Shame this will not work for much longer. While the over the air broadcasts are quickly moving all digital, and in a couple of years the old analog signals will be switched off. Not so on the cable lines as the cable companies are not required by the FCC to switch. Of course, it is in their best interest to do so given the larger amount of content they can put down the pipe with digital. When the cable companies get around to their transition, all of those out there with PC tuner cards will be cut off from being able to view cable programming on their PC without having to use some proprietary method, one that as far as I can tell doesn't exist.

All of this (this blog entry) came about when I discovered that Midcontinent Communications (aka Midco), my local cable tv and internet provider turned off its last unencrypted stream. High up there in the 80's, on a single RF channel, one could find the local CBS and UPN stations, along with a small weather channel provided by the CBS affiliate.

But no, that is gone now, and I expect that things are only going to get worse. I for one will miss the days when you could go to your local electronics store, buy a piece of equipment and have it work flawlessly with your cable. Granted, it may not be able to get all of the premium channels, you could still do just about everything else. Now, unless you go through your cable operator, you will not have such a luxury.