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On November 28, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association filed comments urging the Federal Communications Commission to allow cable system operators who have gone 100% digital to make every channel on their systems subject to conditional access.

 

That means, of course, that even your local broadcast channels would require a cable box of some sort to be receivable. Presently, those channels sit ‘in the clear’ on many cable systems and can be tuned in with a late model digital TV just as easily as over-the-air channels.

 

The catch, of course, is that you won’t see any program guide information, although you might actually see the correct virtual channel numbers, like 3-1 or 7-1. But cable systems don’t pass broadcast stations Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) data intact. Rather, they re-encode it into their own electronic program guide (EPG) systems.

 

Some cable system operators are already encrypting all digital channels. RCN comes to mind, and Cablevision has also applied for and gotten a waiver from the FCC to add conditional access to all of their digital channels.

 

It’s not really known how many people watch ‘free’ SD and HD digital cable channels at the present time. I know of a few subscribers who sign up for broadband and pick off the ‘clear’ digital channels that are present on the system. But that trick won’t last for long if the FCC changes the rules.

 

In an article on the Multichannel News Web site, the FCC “…conceded there was an issue with consumers with basic-only digital who accessed it without set-tops, or second or third sets without digital boxes that would now need new equipment to unscramble a signal.”

 

Apparently the FCC doesn’t see any downside to this position, stating, “We tentatively conclude that allowing cable operators to encrypt the basic service tier in all-digital systems will not substantially affect compatibility between cable service and consumer electronics equipment for most subscribers.”

 

How this will affect folks on the verge of ‘cutting the cord’ and going back to over-the-air TV remains to be seen, but it’s certainly going to provide more momentum to make the switch.

 

It wasn’t that long ago that you simply connected the cable directly to your old analog TV set and tuned in local channels you wanted to watch. Now, you’ll need (at the least) a digital terminal adapter (DTA) to watch those same channels, even though your late-model LCD or plasma TV can already receive them without a converter box.

 

Life is complicated, isn’t it?

Posted by Pete Putman, November 29, 2011 5:06 PM

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About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.