The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

What rhymes with Comcast?

A few weeks ago, we received notice that Comcast would be transitioning channels above 30 to digital, away from analog. This transition is to happen on April 15. We were told we could get either a converter and a set-top box, or a pair of converters. Jodi and I opted for the box and converter. “Great!” I thought, “a converter for sTeVo and a box for the TV in the spare room.”

I was wrong. What I learned was that the converter was actually a tuner. You set your TV to analog channel 3 and then control the digital TV with a remote, changing the internal digital channel on the converter. In other words, sTeVo cannot tune the signal output from the box, so sTeVo cannot record TV.

I was crushed. Jodi and I both whipped open our laptops and started Googling. We learned a lot in a short time. We learned:

  • cable companies are taking advantage of the federal switch from over-the-air (OTA)  analog to digital to themselves start wiping analog off their systems [1]. This switch is their choice, not required by federal law, since cable companies control the cable systems. They claim it’s to open up their spectrum, but I suspect a darker motive – digital rights management. Read on.
  • The converters for OTA digital will not work on cable, since each company handles their digital system themselves
  • Most, if not all, of the digital channels will probably (this is hard to find out from Comcast) be encrypted, meaning I cannot just purchase a Hauppauge tuner card for sTeVo and expect to be able to watch channels like Discovery, Comedy, etc.

So there are a few solutions on the table:

  1. Buy a Hauppauge card that handles digital cable, at the risk of only getting a few unencrypted channels
  2. Buy an IR Blaster, or similar device, and have sTeVo change the channels on the Comcast converter box (MythTV can do this natively)
  3. Find a third party device that can take (un)encrypted digital signals and turn them into good old analog, allowing sTeVo to tune on that analog output

Solution 1 would be the best, since it involves the least hacking – however, I can’t get encrypted channels and the chatter on the net is that once Comcast gets everybody trapped in digital they’ll encrypt everything except the channels that are required by law to be unencrypted (local stations). Solution 2 would be a nice kludge, except that nobody seems to be able to make an IR Blaster talk to the hardware Comcast is using (a Pace DC50x, where Pace is a subsidiary of Motorola). TiVo users with recent hardware apparently can do this, so that must mean it’s just a matter of reverse-engineering the IR frequencies used by the remote. However, none of my existing IR sensors, when set in “watch” mode, can actually detect the IR signals from the Pace remote. WTF!

Solution 3 is the biggest unknown. Is there a piece of hardware out there that can take (un)encrypted digital signals and turn them into a spectrum of analog frequencies, that can then be tuned by sTeVo?

It seems that sTeVo may be on the verge of obsolescence, driven by the digital rights insanity that is built into digital cable. Bullshit. Total utter bullshit. I can’t even throw money at the problem and solve it. Even capitalism has failed (for me – for Comcast, it’s fantastic).

Yes, I know – fourth choice is to get OTA digital. But where I live, those signals SUCK. And, I’d get none of the channels I actually like watching.

We enter a dangerous new world, where even more consumer rights are stripped away by the paranoid technology vision of the few companies that control the gates to information. Not only that, I’d gladly pay money for a solution, and there are none.

UPDATE: I did a live chat with a Comcast agent tonight, and learned that only local channels will be unencrypted. So, since I like watching Mythbusters (hey, they’re local!), I have to scrap solutions 1 and 3 and shoot for 2.


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