March 13th, 2008

Sucks to be a RCN customer (soon)

It seems like it's the beginning of the end for RCN transmitting in-the-clear digital channels. Starting last month in Chicago, they have turned off all their analog channels (fine with me), and started encrypting all their digital QAM channels (not fine with me). Apparently this wonderful future will be "coming soon" to their other markets as well.

What this means for normal customers: You need to rent a cable box for every TV you own, whether or not it already has a QAM tuner in it.

What it means for me: I will no longer be able to record TV on my custom built Digital Video Recorder (a HDHomeRun attached to a linux box running MythTV) anymore.

(For reference: currently, their entire basic lineup is broadcast in the clear in analog (SD) and digital (HD and SD))

If this change happens in Boston, I'm not sure what I'll do: encrypted QAM is almost totally useless to me. The approved way of decrypting the signal is by putting a CableCard in your tuner. However, not only do I not have any tuners with a CableCard slot, it's literally impossible to buy a tuner with a CableCard slot which will interface with a computer. I don't understand this: in Europe, the equivalent devices are quite readily available (search for a "DVB card with CAM support"). But not so for a CableCard.

That's not to say such a device doesn't exist. ATI makes a USB tuner with a cable card. It's just that you can only use it if you buy a brand new computer with it. And the brand new computer comes with Windows Vista, and (I guess, not really sure here) some mutant extra-DRMy firmware for the motherboard in the computer to make extra sure you can't do anything with the shows you've recorded. Apparently not even Vista's regular DRM is good enough for protecting cable TV. So, that's right out.

I guess I'll do one of the following:

a) I'm led to understand that it may be possible to get a set-top-box with a Firewire output, and that under some circumstances, the encrypted channels might not be encrypted on the Firewire output. If that's the case, that'd work, although not as nicely as just recording directly off the cable.
b) I could just use an antenna for broadcast channels, and cancel my cable subscription. (and download cable-only programs from the internet. TV shows on the internet often don't have any DRM at all, strangely enough.)
c) Or maybe figure out if it's possible to subscribe to a satellite service in the USA which works with a DVB card. (I think the answer is no.)
d) Or...give up and use the crappy cable box the cable company provides, like everyone else.

PS: I'm quite surprised there's no unofficial decryption software for digital cable streams yet. Or for firewire video streams. But as far as I can tell, there is not. I guess the DMCA is working!