Monday, October 14, 2013

Are All Your QAM Channels Scrambled? Comcast scrambles clear QAM stations...some solutions

Are All Your QAM Channels Scrambled? 

11-16-13 Update to this post: It's been a month now, and for those folks who have come to this post, I would like to summarize my experience.

I used to be very happy using a Windows 7 laptop running Windows Media Center along with a Silicondust HD HomeRun dual-tuner unit to record HD stations from the clear QAM band on my Comcast cable line.  I have not paid any DVR rental fees and have subscribed to Comcast’s Limited Basic Service.  The HD shows were broadcast over the cable, called clear QAM.  The shows were unencrypted, by law.  

Starting October 1, 2013, Comcast began encrypting its clear QAM signals.  It took a lot of work, but hopefully this post will let some of you save time in finding a solution.  I ended up buying  an HD HomeRun Prime (Cablecard-based tuner) to record shows with WMC.   I paid about $130 for it and have since seen it for $100.  I did have to call Comcast, go to a Comcast office to pick up a free Cablecard (which is just a PCMCIA card that fits into the HomeRun Prime), and spend some time calling Comcast to activate the Cablecard.  I found that Comcast was actually pretty helpful, but it took quite a bit of patience to reach the right person.  However, after the initial setup problems, I am pretty happy, and back to where I used to be.  I am using the same old Windows 7 laptop to record shows in HD using Windows Media Center.  I now have three tuners instead of two.  I am still subscribed to Comcast's Limited Basic Service.  I have to admit that paying $130 for a new tuner that works with my existing Windows 7 laptop is a satisfactory solution for me.  I just wonder when the next change will occur where I will have to buy gear yet again.  

I have two blog posts on 10-18-13 that describe some technical issues with Comcast and the new setup that I encountered, along with solutions. 


Here's the older post: 

I have been able to view major network stations in glorious high-definition for a couple of years now.  These channels have been broadcast over my cable line, by Comcast.  I’ve used a Silicondust HD HomeRun dual-tuner unit to convert these channels to IP data streams that my Windows machines have been able to pick up and record using the awesome Windows Media Center.  It has been a terrific setup.  Microsoft did a splendid job with Windows Media Center, and I have a digital video recorder that resides on a Windows 7 laptop.  I have not paid any DVR rental fees and have subscribed to Comcast’s Limited Basic Service.  The HD shows were broadcast over the cable, called clear QAM.  The shows were unencrypted, by law. 

This was all good until October 1, 2013 (a few days ago).  Late in 2012, the FCC issued a ruling which allowed Comcast to encrypt clear QAM signals.  So of course, Comcast decides to encrypt its clear QAM signals. 

I’ve been scrambling since then to find a new DVR solution.  I don’t want to buy a Tivo or rent a DVR.  I just want to be able to record network programs in high-definition.  I am a sports fan (specifically, football) and record college and NFL football games for later viewing. 

There’s a full discussion of Comcast and the loss of clear QAM channels at this link:

http://www.avsforum.com/t/1475637/are-all-your-qam-channels-scrambled/180


Here are my posts, which I hope may help others in the same situation. 

I am near the SF Bay area. I also lost all clear QAM channels on October 1 (Comcast did give advance notice of this). I have a Silicondust HD Homerun that worked perfectly with my Windows 7 laptop and Windows Media Center. There's no good alternative solution since we only get CBS over the air here (and intermittently at that). So now, I have hundreds of dollars of DVR gear that no longer works.

The Comcast DTA that I got from them has an HDMI output, but it outputs standard definition -- the resulting TV picture is definitely not HD.  (correction below – the HD DTA boxes DO output HD signals, but a Comcast technician must enable this for you). 

I pay $25 per month to Comcast for Limited Basic, the price keeps going up, and they keep making changes that frustrate their customers. It's a nightmare trying to call them. Comcast probably thinks that by scrambling clear QAM channels, they will convince customers to pay more for a higher tier of cable channels. I tried one of their higher tier packages once; I had to use one of their boxes which only output SD. I would have had to pay more for HD.

I recently saw what Comcast was charging my parents, and the charges were outrageous. They charge unknowledgeable customers an HD Technology fee of $9.25 per first outlet, $10 per additional outlet to get HD, and other charges like additional outlet service and a modem rental (I can't install one of my Motorola cable modems since they have Comcast Xfinity service). Here at home in Monterey, where I keep a strict eye on my expenses, I pay $25 for Comcast Limited Basic service, and $15 for their internet service, and I use my own modem. When Comcast tries to increase my rate for internet service, I've been able to switch to AT&T DSL service, also for $15, on my landline (but they may be starting to phase that out in favor of U-Verse).

Here's the email for Comcast corporate customer service:
we_can_help@cable.comcast.com


I hope that all of us here will let Comcast know of our extreme displeasure at their policy of scrambling clear QAM channels, giving us insufficient replacements with their DTA boxes that only output SD signals, not honoring the FCC mandate that they provide customers with "a network-connected converter box that provides access to the unencrypted channels." I'd tell Comcast that you will find any possible solution to opt out of Comcast and go with another provider (satellite TV, OTA, U-Verse, internet TV, Hulu, Netflix, etc) to avoid paying Comcast more. There is no reason for Comcast to scramble clear QAM channels other than for the reason that they want to make more money from their customers.

Here's a sample letter:

Dear Comcast:
I have been a longtime Comcast customer. I am outraged that Comcast has decided to scramble the clear QAM channels in my area, which include the major networks such as FOX, ABC, CBS, and NBC. Because of this new policy, I am no longer able to view shows in high-definition, as your DTA boxes (even the ones with HDMI) only output SD signals. Moreover, it seems that Comcast is not honoring the FCC mandate that it provide customers (like me, who use IP-based Clear-QAM products) with "a network-connected converter box that provides access to the unencrypted channels." There is no reason for Comcast to scramble clear QAM channels other than for the reason that they want to make more money from their customers. I hope that Comcast provides a solution to this problem immediately; otherwise I and thousands of Comcast customers will undoubtedly find other solutions to this problem such as going with another provider or service (satellite TV, OTA, U-Verse, internet TV, Hulu, Netflix, etc). There are many other solutions out there; I just hope that Comcast will recognize this mind-blowing mistake for what it is, and avoid the loss of revenue and customers that this poor decision will cause. On my end, I hope that Comcast will contact me directly to provide an adequate solution to this problem so that I do not have to waste more time finding other services.



After I posted the above to the AVS forum, I received a question:

[quote name="JorgeA" url="/t/1475637/are-all-your-qam-channels-scrambled/150#post_23824051"]
Could you elaborate on the part about "unknowledgeable customers" getting charged an HD Technology fee of $9.25 for the first outlet and $10 per additional outlet? I'd be very happy to learn that there is some way around those fees if you want to receive HD channels on one (or more) outlets. (We do have Comcast.)

Thanks![/quote]


I wrote:
I have an update to my situation as well as an answer to the question above.  First, I am impressed by Comcast's escalated customer service.  I sent my email above to "we_can_help@cable.comcast.com" and heard back from someone on Comcast's "executive team" or something like that the next day. The person actually left a callback number and extension where I could reach her to return her phone call (something Comcast and other companies often don't do, which is ridiculously frustrating).  She actually answered the phone, so I did not have to spend the next week playing phone tag.  I repeated my email when she asked me to describe the problem (why is it that when you write a company, they always ask you to repeat yourself about six times?).  I then got her email address so that I could contact her more efficiently, which was important.  She told me that a technician would be contacting me to resolve my issues. 

I waited a day, then emailed her telling her that no one had called.  Someone did indeed call soon, and he was quite good and knowledgeable, a tech in the escalated services division called Tech Central.  He told me (and was correct) that the DTA boxes that I had, which had HDMI outputs, could indeed put out HD signals.  He needed to know the serial numbers of those boxes and the two SD DTA boxes that I had, and he had to turn on the HD channels on my Limited Basic account or something like that (needed to input high def eta code to enable HDTV channels in HD on my DTAs that have HDMI outputs).  Sure enough, I am now able to get the primary networks in HD again, albeit on channels 702-710 or so rather than channels 2,3, 4, 5 etc. 

I told him that Comcast was not in compliance with the FCC mandate that Comcast is required to provide a option for IP based tuners.  He stated that my HD Homerun box was obsolete, so Comcast would not be providing a solution for this.  He did tell me that I could go into the local Comcast office and pick up a Cablecard, which I could then put into a Cablecard-based tuner.  He stated that I would not be charged for this Cablecard and would be able to receive Limited Basic service at the same price as before, and would be able to specifically use an HD Homerun Prime (Cablecard-based tuner) to record shows with WMC.   I have a Prime on order and we will see if this tech is right.  If so, I have to admit that paying $150 for a new tuner that will work with my existing Windows 7 laptop will be a satisfactory solution for me.  I just wonder when the next change will occur where I will have to buy gear yet again. 

I did haul out an old Windows Vista machine with a built-in TV tuner that I used several years ago to record SD shows.  WMC and some forums show how to set up WMC using IR blasters to change channels on the Comcast DTA boxes.  The tech told me the following:

The DTA box with HDMI out has an RF remote and receiver that will not work with IR blasters.   The RF remote must be paired to each DTA box, will work through walls, etc.  This is the larger remote that says XR2 on it.  (But I observe that my remote has to point to the box or it will not change channels).  Therefore my HD Homerun box with WMC will not work with this DTA box, since it will not be able to change channels on the DTA box. 

The SD DTA box will work with an IR remote.  The tech says that it will NOT work with WMC but he was wrong.  In fact, I have my Windows Vista machine working and it changes channels on the SD DTA box to record shows just fine. 

The 4th DTA box that I am using, for WMC, will have a charge of $0.50 per month.  It outputs an SD signal, I can record shows from it using the built-in tuner on my HP Windows Vista machine and WMC.  But the shows are in SD and the picture quality is just awful, almost unwatchable.  It's hard to give up HD once you are used to it!

Comcast.net has the channel lineup for various packages that can be customized to your area at:
http://www.comcast.com/customers/clu/channellineup.ashx?ex=True&clu=836#

It shows that my Limited Basic package gets Discovery Channel in HD, but does not show that I get network stations (FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC) in HD.  However, if I tune the DTA to channels 702-710 where those channels are supposed to be -- I am receiving those major networks in HD. 

4 comments:

Rahul Kataria said...

Thanks for sharing this post.it such a nice Digital video recorder product .i am happy to buy this.

Bhavin said...

Thanks for sharing your experience on this blog. At the start of new year I discontinued my Dish network service and working on a setup similar to yours.

I was told by Comcast customer support that the CableCard with HDHomeRun Prime will only show SD with Limited Basic package.

Can you confirm that you still receive network broadcast in HD with Limited basic + HDHomeRun Prime + Cablecard?

Norbert Wu said...

Dear Bhavin:

Comcast has told you the wrong thing, which is not unusual for all companies these days. I usually know more about a company's products (as I am a user) than their representatives (who are generally just folks in a call center, sometimes in India or Guatemala).

I have the Limited Basic package with Comcast, and I get network broadcast in full HD with this package, using a Cablecard along with an HDHomeRun Prime. I get it with a laptop running Windows 7 Home Premium which has the Windows Media Player that works well with HDHomerun Prime tuners.

Here are some tips to try to get better service:

This was a good email to get escalated service: we_can_help@cable.comcast.com

The (855) 652-3446 is the Activation line for Comcast services on Modems & Cable boxes only (not Cable Card), while the (877) 405-2298 is the Activation line dedicated for Cable Cards, still provided by Comcast. Try the latter phone line.

Sean at Tech Central: very knowledgeable and patient, but I would only get him since I was escalated. I was escalated by replying to the email we_can_help@cable.comcast.com

Bhavin said...

Awesome!

Thanks for the quick reply.