Thursday, January 03, 2013

"Body"–> Why Cablecards Don’t Work

The card off to the side of this paragraph is a “Cablecard,” which was supposed to be the answer to a more open cable industry. The guts of the Cablecard housing is in something called a PCMCIA container, which is one of the few computer acronyms that lived beyond being a TLA (Three Letter Acronym). In This case, the PCMCIA card stood for Personal Computer Memory Card International Association, which was very popular around the 1990s. The PCMCIA card was designed because it was one time believed that laptop users really needed the ability to upgrade their laptops in the same way that desktop users upgrade their systems with expansion cards. However, it was difficult to have a very large PCI (the desktop expansion) in a laptop, so a new standard was born. PCMCIA cards were to be the “expansion cards” for laptops. The PCMCIA slot was in almost every laptop during the 1990s, but it wasn’t used for the most part. The new Cablecard device looks to also be something that is created, but may proved to not be used.
 Cablecard was born out a federal law in the USA in 1996, which is called the Federal Communication Act.  The thought process is that the cable industry had a monopoly, and they needed to open up their networks so that you could buy equipment from somebody other than the cable provider, and still use your own equipment on the Cable providers network.  For example, if you get a cable company’s digital signal, you would normally need to buy a set top box from them to get service.  However, with a Cablecard, you can plug it into your own equipment to get your own box to receive cable.

Why would you want to do this?  Simply because it is cheaper.  In the

In the case of my own local cable company, Cox Cable, they charge $8.50 for a DVR.  A Cablecard costs $2.00 per month.  So, you save around $6.50.  It really isn’t much, but, as in so many other things in life, the reason is that it is cheaper at all is that the FCC said that cable operators must give a discount.  So, this is the discount that Cox gives.

I wanted to try for myself the installation of a Cablecard.  There is a Cablecard box out called Silicondust Homerun Prime, which had been getting some good reviews, so I thought this would be a good experiment to see if I could get it hooked up.
The Silicondust Homerun Prime is designed to work in concert with your personal computer, with the preferred software for this activity is the built in Windows Media Center.  If you don’t know, Windows Media Center was Microsoft’s strategy to move the PC into the family or living room.  Windows Media Center looks very different from the normal Windows experience, and it has been included for free in Windows since Vista.  However, this  about to change.  It is included in Windows 8 for free until January 31st, 2013. After this, it is going to be a $9.99 dollar charge to use.  So, before we go further in this blog, if it is not already past they due date, and you have Windows 8, you should go get it.

There is an excellent blog posting here about the details of getting this download, and I suggest you go and view it if you are interested in this update.  The main message is that there is both good news and bad news in the new Microsoft approach.  The good news is that Microsoft has not abandoned the Windows 8 Media Center work. Many people were afraid that Microsoft new that they had seen very poor acceptance of Media Center and would discontinue it.  The bad news is that they are charging for it, which indicates that they might be considering killing it as this is a good excuse for not developing it any more.  It will all come down to how many people are going to be willing to pay for the $9.99 download.  If enough people pay for it, Microsoft will continue to develop for it, and having a revenue stream is always a great excuse to put investment here.  The end answer is that this new strategy will flush out if Media Center is a viable software for the future, as it become debundled.

However, we are not just talking about my experience with Media Center, because after spending 3 days working on the problem, I am not even to this stage.  To rewind, I had bought the Silicondust system, and this meant that I only had to go to my local Cox cable store to pick up my Cablecard to enable the system.

Or so I thought.

I showed up at the store, and I had a quick and polite conversation with the woman working the counter.  She laid out that I needed to get a particular digital package to get high definition, and the Cablecard.  Setting up the Cablecard is not exactly simple.  While the Silicondust system is set up in a pretty cool fashion (and I decide that I didn’t want to be a leading edge guy, so I waited for a year after they had started this particular system before buying it), the Silicondust provider is clearly a start-up.  The documentation is a bit lackluster, and you really need to go to the forums to understand much of the details.

After hooking up the system, I had a bit of trouble actually understanding what you were to do with the system.  I have some type of signal coming into the system, but I didn’t know what to do with it. It turns out, at least in my case, you need to run two separate utilities to get the full view of the Silicondust system.
The first utility is the most helpful.  If is call the “Homerun config utility.”  After you have the Cablecard in the system, you need to run this utility to get the box configured.  Now, here is the strange part.  You have a Cablecard.  You got it from Cox cable.  However, it does not plug and play.  You need to plug it in.  Turn on the system, and then finally you need to call the cable provider to get them to turn the connection on.  Again, this just sloppy.  I’ve worked with computers for a long time, and you normally expect a system to work without turning it on in the backend.  However, once you have run the configuration utility, you can click on the first tab, and on the first tab you can click a special “web page” link.  This in turn brings up a local webpage that has a list of hotlinks. 

Once you get this local webpage (which pulls data from the Silicondust system), you can read off the the Cablecard ID, the Host Id and the other special numbers that are buried in your units.  After you have this data, you call up your local Cox center, and read these numbers off to them.  This then allows them to turn on your service in the backend.

I had called up the Cox service, and the first person had no idea what was going one, but I got transferred to somebody that did.  While I was getting some of the channels, I definitely was not getting all of the channels.  The support person didn’t seem to ask the right questions, but I had read enough of the Silicondust support forum, that I had heard about something that is sometimes needed called a “tuning adapter” or short hand called a “TA.”  The support person said, “Oh, yes, Cox uses switched digital video (SDV), and you need one of these to get the signal.”

Now, considering that I went to the Cox store to pick up the Cablecard, and they sold me the local video digital package, they should have offered up that I need an adapter to pick out the SDV channels.  But no, they had no idea that I needed both parts.  So, I wait for the next day, and I went back to the store.  I found the same woman, and I told her that Cox support said I needed a TA.  She never apologized for making me make a round trip, probably because she didn’t understand that this was not an option but a requirement for Cablecards.  Regadless, she disappeared into the backroom and came out a few minutes later with a Motorola DTR700.

This is the unit, and and I took it home to plugged it in.  The key about this TA (tuning adapter) is that it also needs to be turned on similar to the Cablecard unit that needed to be turned on.  The unit comes up with a flashing yellow light, then you are supposed to call up Cox cable to get them to hit the SDV TA with a initialization packet to get it to register to the network.  Once it is initialized, the yellow light stops blinking, then you are ready to get your digital signals.

However, when I did this with the technical support person, they tried to hit it, and the yellow light never went solid, indicating that it had been initialized.  I asked the person on the support line if he could see my unit to know if it was taking a signal.
“No I can’t,” he answered.  “I simply have to send a signal into the blind.”  After him trying a couple of times to get it paired up and working, he final declared that I must have a bad TA, and I should return to the store to get it replaced.  It was past the closing time, so I decided to go back the next day. 

When I showed up at the store, I was quickly replaced with a new unit.  I brought this home, and called up Cox to get it hit again.  This time I got a knowledgeable tech that wanted to get me up and running.  He said that he was going to pair the box, and get it initialized, but after he had tried it, he said, “I can see that it isn’t taking.”

Now, the tech from the previous day said that he was sending the signal into the blind, so I was very surprised when this person said he could see my box. 
“The tech the other day said that you don’t have the ability to see the box,” I said.  “Is there any reason why you can see it and he couldn’t?”  I could tell the guy was embarrassed, but he simply said, “I’m not sure what the other tech was seeing.”

However, although the Cox tech was hitting my box, he was not able to get it to get initialized. 
“I think we have a signal strength problem,” he said. 

The cool thing about the Silicondust system is that the configuration utility on the “tuner” tab has a little seek arrow.  if you hit the seek arrow, it starts to go through all the channels that are available.  Cable sends the digital signal out over what is called a quadrature amplitude modulation, or QAM.  The QAM has 256 channels (or 64 if older) and each channel has a sub-channel.  The tuner tab will look at any given channel and then show the Signal Strength, Signal Quality, and the Symbol Quality.  It will also tell you if data is being transferred and what speed it is coming in at.  Very cool data.

So, when the Cox guy said “signal problem,” I pulled up my utility, and looked at the signal strength.  Because my cable comes to my television through I long length of cable, I told him that I was moving to the internal patch box, to put the TA there and see if it helped the signal.  I moved it up to the patch box in my house, and the signal strength went up 1%.  This didn’t seem like much, and when he hit it again, it didn’t authorize.

So, I told him that I was going outside to the street, and I would patch in the box right at where Cox delivered the cable to me on the street.  Once I had gotten out to the street, I open up the box, and I started to patch in my TA.  I remembered that I had some problem with my Internet about 1 year ago, and the Cox guy had come in to repatch the connection.  As I hooked up the TA, I ran my utility and I found out that I was getting zero signal.  As I traced through the cables, I found out that to “fix” my internet, the Cox guy a year ago had disconnect some of my wires.  These were necessary for my internet, but were a “nice to have” if I had digital cable.  One of the big things is that the Cox guy from a year ago had disconnected a Scientific Atlantic amplifier.  These are good for cable, but bad for internet access.  So, while the Cox guy was on the phone, I rehooked up the cables, and I fixed the wiring so that I had both a raw and amped signal.
I then hooked up the TA to both lines, one at a time, and tried to get it to initialize. 

It never took.

So, after wasting many hours, and repatching cables, and so forth, the Cox guy said, “I’ll send a technician out to your house for no charge.”

Now, this is why Cablecards don’t work.  First off, Cox doesn’t give you the right parts.  Secondly, the technicians working the phone are not well educated.  Some know the tricks and others don’t.  Finally, you have no ability to get resolutions on how to get the TA initialized.

Is all lost?  Maybe not.  The cable guy comes tomorrow.  My guess is that he won’t be able to solve it on my end.  It is a backend problem.