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Can You Make Comcast's Digital Transition Without a Cable Box?

Over the past year or so, I've devoted a reasonable amount of ink and pixels to a sideshow in the digital-TV transition: cable-TV operators' separate, unrelated upgrade from analog to digital systems. That second conversion is now picking up speed in the Washington area: Comcast, the largest cable provider here, has begun switching the bulk of its analog-cable channels to digital in much of Maryland, as well as in other markets across the United States.


A frequently-asked-questions section on its Web site explains that the Philadelphia firm is doing this to make more efficient use of its network bandwidth (the same reason why wireless carriers moved to digital service years ago). It also specifies that local network stations and public, educational and government channels will continue to be carried in analog.

In return, Comcast promises a vast increase in the variety of content available (notwithstanding the fact that most of us don't have any more free time in which to watch all that stuff).

But to watch both those new programming choices and existing, newly converted channels, viewers with analog TVs will need to add some new hardware to their setup: either a digital set-top box or a less-capable "digital adapter" (which doesn't offer access to Comcast's electronic program guide or OnDemand service). Comcast says it will provide one digital box and two digital adapters "no additional monthly service cost."

But viewers will still need to adjust to having another box, another remote control and another set of wires in their living rooms -- and the ones who have e-mailed me about this don't seem too happy about it. (The same thing happened when a much smaller cable firm, Herndon-based RCN, made its own digital switch last year -- although RCN reps compounded the problem by incorrectly blaming the move on over-the-air TV's transition from analog to digital.)

Digital-TV owners who subscribe to Comcast cable, however, face a different wrinkle. Most digital sets made over the past several years include a QAM ("Quadrature Amplitude Modulation") tuner that can receive non-premium, non-encrypted channels -- that is, the expanded-basic programming that Comcast is now moving from analog to digital.

Comcast's FAQ, however, doesn't say outright whether a QAM tuner will work to receive their newly upgraded digital service or not, instead recommending the use of a digital TV or TiVo digital video recorder with a CableCard slot. CableCards, however, have nearly been driven to extinction, in part because of apathetic support by cable operators, and the cable industry is now working on a successor technology called tru2way.

I've asked Comcast's PR folks to clarify QAM's status in this digital upgrade. In the meantime, maybe you all can help. Have you been able to tune into its non-premium digital-cable programming with your DTV, DVR or DVD recorder's QAM tuner? And was that a simple process, or did you have to spend some time figuring out channel numbers and labels that didn't match their placement in analog? Please tell me where you're tuning in from and what brand of TV or video recorder you're using. (Subscribers to other digital-cable services are also welcome to chime in.)

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 22, 2009; 11:41 AM ET
Categories:  TV  
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I went through this with RCN, and it has been fine (and they've expanded the HD offerings greatly).

That said, it's a bugger, because I used to be able to hook any TV into the coaxial directly and use the TV's remote as well as Picture-in-picture feature. Now that's all gone. For the sets with Tivo it's fine, since I use that instead. But having a cable box (or no TV) is a really poor alternative-reduced features and an additional, cheesy, complex remote. At least RCN is pretty good about supporting cable cards. No problem getting those installed in the Tivo. I've heard Comcast isn't so good on that count, but I have not personal experience.

Rob--how about an update on tru2way. Are

Posted by: ah___ | September 22, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

[sorry] . . . we ever going to see TV sets with tru2way and cable cos. around here that support it? I'd like a TV with a cable card in it without more tivo.

Posted by: ah___ | September 22, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

The REAL story here is the possibility of Comcast encrypting the digital signal.

Right now, I can receive all the expanded basic digital channels with just the coax into my digital sets, along with the broadcast HD channels, here in Montgomery County. The channels shift, but I'm sure they'll stabilize.

Problem is the new little digital adapters Comcast is sending out are capable of de-encryption. And since Comcast just got a waiver from the FCC to encrypt their digital signal, this would mean -- if Comcast encrypts their signal -- a box of some type for EVERY TV set, even new digital sets.

I've written to my Montgomery County council person about this, and I've been contacted by the county cable office. They've received a number of complaints about this possibility.

Posted by: jslaff | September 22, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

In our area Cox is the cable provider. Since cell phone reception is spotty here, I don’t know anyone who watches television by catching “the floating airwaves.” Since the digital switch, Cox has moved several channels to its upper, digital-only channels. So, if you don’t subscribe and get a box, you are out of luck. Those channels were part of the “expanded package,” so I was already paying extra for them. Instead of putting something in its place, this channel is empty – it’s just static. We received no discount from it, but our package deal pricing is still in place.

This need “to make more efficient use of its network bandwidth” is a total crock! Move decent channels to make us pay more, and replace them with every channel that pitches something, like QVC. They really aren’t serving their customers. And then, the networks wonder why we abandon television altogether.

Posted by: ummhuh1 | September 22, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Comcast LYING when they say they will continue to carry local network, public, educational, and government channels in analog. While I don't have Comcast, my friends do, well at least they did until Comcast shoved MPT up to the digital tier. They now have FIOS, not that Verizon is any better with ridiculous boxes needed for every television.

I have Cox, and they've started doing the same thing. MPT is now in the digital tier, MTV2 soon followed, and the most recent casualty, TCM, has vanished from my analog signal. I have scanned the signal with two different TVs with QAM tuners, and don't get any more channels (aside from the OTA broadcast channels) than my old non-digital TVs.

I LOVE my HDDVR, but one box on my main TV is plenty. If I have to buy boxes for my other TVs to use them (one which hangs on a wall and another that's under a kitchen cabinet), then two of my TVs become completely USELESS. Someone will definitely hear from me if that happens!

Posted by: Russtinator | September 22, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I installed Comcast DTA's on 2 coax only connected sets. The benefit is that these tv's now get a few more channels that had disappeared, which I used to watch. The downside is that the DTA's take a few seconds for the channel to change.
Also, for what it's worth, in MOntgomery, Comcast just announced that it is adding 48 new HD channels to it's lineup.

Posted by: Max231 | September 22, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

I've got coax plugged straight into an HTDV with QAM tuner and it's working pretty well. There is the concern that Comcast will decide to encrypt everything to require a cable box, but for not it's working.

Figuring out the channel assignments took a lot of surfing, but the resources link on helped.

Posted by: tcr25 | September 22, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

We have Comcast's extended basic via a coax. Our digital TV has all the bells and whistles, so I assume QAM. All the broadcast channels are available in one or more digital versions as well as analog. So Fox is available as channel 2 (analog) or 2.1 (digital) and so on for PBS (5, 5.1, 5.2), CBS, ABC, NBC (4, 4.1, 4.2). There was no hunting to find channel assignments. Can't tell by looking if the cable channels are digital or not. But as Comcast is raising prices next month, it's likely that something is (has?) changed.

Posted by: MMRudy | September 22, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Forgot to add, we are in Northern New Mexico. Our digital TV's are a Samsung and a Magnavox. Both receive available HD channels.

Posted by: MMRudy | September 22, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

With Verizon FIOS in Virginia, if you have a HDTV with a QAM tuner, you can get 5 or 6 local HD TV (720 or 1080) channels directly off your in-house coax cable connected to FIOS.


Posted by: jjw7210 | September 22, 2009 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Comcast in Rockville (20850) has a bunch of digital channels that I can pull in with my Sony LCD HDTV tuner and with my HD TiVo. Last spring, AMC disappeared from the analog slot (channel 67), but I recently found it again at 102.408. Cartoon Network left analog 58 and now appears as 102.402. ION HD shows up at 58.4401. Many analog channels have digital clones at the same time. The local channels also show up in HD, but they have moved around a bit. Sometimes in smart ways that has them show up in the right place like 5.1 for FOX and sometimes not, like NBC HD at 108.1801. History International shows up at 80.3505. Universal HD appears at 38.1301. I rescan periodically to see where things have moved.

Posted by: wdnewho1 | September 22, 2009 8:08 PM | Report abuse

Cable companies have done everything in their power to discourage the use of CableCards. They want us to use their ugly set top boxes and incompetent remotes, so that we will use more of their services and view their stupid advertising channels. The remotes that came with my TVs are perfect for those TVs, and let me get the most out of those TVs. (As we might expect, Comcast does not acknowledge in their information that a TV with QAM tuner can receive their expanded basic digital service.) Rob, I can't thank you enough for keeping these issues visible!

Posted by: mmt72 | September 22, 2009 10:21 PM | Report abuse

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I can get the Comcast digital channels on my Philips DVD recorder's QAM tuner. I bought it before the switch-over, and it found the digital channels when I did the channel scanning even though I only subscribed for analog service.

I re-scanned the channels after the switch-over, and here are some observations:

1. As you surmised, you have to use different channel numbers for the QAM tuner and the Comcast set-top box. The set-top box channel numbers are all integers, while the QAM tuner channel numbers require a channel number and a sub-channel number with a decimal point in between. Some, but not all, of the over-the-air TV channels maintained their over-the-air virtual channel numbers on the QAM tuner. So I have to manually create and maintain a table to cross-reference between the QAM tuner channel numbers and the set-top box channel numbers.

2. Some channels have moved to a different frequency on the QAM tuner when I scanned for a second time. This could mean that Comcast can switch the frequency on a channel any time it wants (it probably keeps a table inside the set-top box to match up the channel to the proper set-top box channel number or that the program carries a set-top box channel number), and when it does, my channel cross reference table is obsolete and I have to update it. There is evidence this frequency change can even be done dynamically (i.e. on-the-fly) by Comcast. I found that for a period of time (no longer true now) I could pick up on-demand programs that were sent un-encrypted. I assume those on-demand programs showing up were watched by my neighbors and that they were on-demand programs because sometimes the program could suddenly fast-forward or rewind, and that the channel would freeze when the program ended. Channels could pop up or disappear, and a program could suddenly switch over to an adjacent sub-channel in mid-stream. While I had to switch channel using the QAM tuner to keep up with such a program, I assume the subscriber using a set-top box would be oblivious to the switch.

3. For some over-the-air network TV channels, they actually appear twice on the QAM tuner, one in 16:9 aspect ratio and the other in 4:3. Perhaps one of them is in HD, but I have no way to confirm as I don't have an HDTV with ATSC tuner.

4. On the QAM tuner, I can find multiple local government channels from the neighboring communities. However, on the set-top box, I can only pick up the one from my city. I assume the set-top box filtered out the rest based on my location.

Posted by: fqp1 | September 23, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Having recently moved to NYC, I now have Time-Warner cable. My QAM tuner receives about 60 channels which all show up as channel 0. No decimal either, just 0. This makes it useless to try to tune to a specific broadcast. There is also no PSIP information displayed, so I can't use that to tell what channel I'm watching.

Posted by: jcorwin | September 23, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Comcast will be encrypting the expanded basic digital signals by the end of the year. See this Seattle Times article.

Posted by: kenwvt | September 23, 2009 8:16 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, everybody. I'll be looking out for the issues you described when I do my own testing of QAM reception of Comcast's signals.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | September 25, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Have been enjoying the expanded options of a QAM tuner for over a year; early on, it was interesting to see what my neighbors were ordering via VOD, as those were being sent 'in the clear'(!)
In the past week or two, however, Comcast (Balto Cnty) has been eliminating small blocks of open channels, and I believe there's a target of 01 Nov to clamp down on all the open channels, rendering the internal tuner on each of my HDTVs useless. {Grrrr}

Posted by: Mark_CharmCity | September 29, 2009 8:38 PM | Report abuse

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