Cord Cutting Followup – Streaming Local Networks Using the Channels App & TV Everywhere

This week’s video continues a topic discussion I began last week with my end of CableCARD video.

A number of commenters on the original video pointed out that the Channels App‘s TV Everywhere feature does support local networks but it has to be enabled first. I tried it out on my installation and it does indeed work! The only network missing from my local lineup is Fox but everything else appears to be working.

Many viewers suggested that I look elsewhere for TV service, so I also did an analysis on my cable bill to see if I’d save any money going to an over the top service like YouTube TV, Sling, etc.

At the end of the video I also did a search on AntennaWeb to see if any of my local broadcasters are using the new ATSC 3.0 format. It looks like they just started around here so that will be the subject of a followup video this week! Stay tuned!

The End of CableCARD?

My latest video is about the impending death of CableCARD.

CableCARDs look like the old PCMCIA/cardbus cards our late 90s/early 2000s laptops used but instead plug into cable equipment to access subscription television services. The cards are provided by cable companies to customers.

CableCARD – Creative Commons Image – Petiatil 

For a long time getting cable TV to work on a television was as simple as plugging in a coaxial cable – in the past only the premium channels like HBO were scrambled.

But a lot changed when cable went digital in the early 2000s. Cable companies found a new revenue path renting expensive digital boxes to consumers and most TVs lacked the tuning hardware to get service without one. The FCC allowed this provided cable companies gave consumers the option to use their own equipment to access services. CableCARD was the mechanism for that.

Sadly though consumers tend to drift towards the tyranny of the default and few CableCARD boxes were ever manufactured. The two remaining ones are the HDHomerun Prime and some Tivo boxes.

I have been using the HDHomerun Prime since 2013. It saved me a ton of money (thousands over the last decade) as I was able to use my own Android TV boxes and DVR vs. paying Comcast a monthly fee for the privilege. In fact my original video about the HDHomerun box was one of the main catalysts for my channel’s growth. Silicondust, the makers of the product, later became a sponsor. The open architecture of the HDHomerun equipment allows it to work with other apps too like Plex, Emby, Channels and many others. Channels and Plex are also sponsors on my YouTube channel.

In February of 2020 the FCC lifted the CableCARD mandate which now allows for any cable provider to stop supporting them. A few weeks ago Spectrum Cable notified customers that the end is coming.

Their reason for doing so is to make room for better Internet upload speeds to keep up with fiber optic providers that are putting competitive pressure on the cable giants.

Although it’s digital today, cable TV works pretty much the same way it did at its inception as a “community antenna service.” Think of your cable wire as an antenna that can pick up a range of frequencies. In this case those transmissions are not coming over the air but are rather transmitted over the wire. There’s a finite limit as to how many frequencies can be supported on the wire, which means to add services something has to be taken away.

Internet service needs to share the wire with TV stations that are broadcasting 24/7 each on their own frequencies whether somebody is watching or not. And the process of supporting uploads from many “stations” vs. a single downstream transmitter is very complicated and requires a lot of room on the cable to separate the transmissions.

But upstream speeds need to be increased dramatically for cable companies to remain competitive vs. fiber optic providers. Like any highway expansion there might be some homes in the way that have to be cleared to make room for the road. This is exactly what’s happening with CableCARD – the frequencies it uses on coax cables are in the region that would be allocated for this expanded Internet service. The industry calls it “high split.”

Why are cable companies still using coax? Because they’ve managed to squeeze every bit of value they can out of the wire and are still finding ways to do more. Although much of the local cable backbone is fiber optic these days, most homes are still connected over coax. The cost for replacing the connections for hundreds of millions of subscribers would be astronomical. It’s much cheaper to use the cable differently vs. installing a new one.

So it’s likely in the coming months we’ll be seeing announcements about CableCARD support coming to an end. SiliconDust says they can re-route the frequencies CableCARDs use but I doubt there’s enough CableCARD customers out there to warrant going through the amount of work to make that happen. And at some point cable TV will pivot away from always on broadcasts consuming considerable bandwidth to a streaming on-demand model delivered over IP.

And there are some alternatives now. Cable streaming apps run on most mobile and TV devices. I’ll likely switch to the Channels App which supports TVEverywhere – this works almost exactly like my CableCARD although it streams my subscribed content from Comcast over the Internet. And for those of you lucky enough to receive over the air television (I cannot where I live) tuner devices like the over the air HDHomerun boxes are a great solution.

So times are changing. And it’s funny that the thing driving this change is what we’ve all wished for the most: a more competitive local ISP market. Sadly our CableCARDs will be a casualty of that.

Cable Companies Becoming Dumb (Profitable) Pipes

Interesting article in Multichannel news about Charter Communications using Comcast’s Flex platform to deliver streaming media to customers. Charter CEO Rutledge believes most customers will end up cutting the TV cord and go IP only:

“I expect that incrementally most of our customer base will be all-IP,” Rutledge said after being asked about the JV on Charter’s Q1 earnings conference call with analysts. He added that unused video spectrum can be recaptured and used to increase broadband speeds or provide additional capacity over time.

Cable companies make far more money delivering dumb pipes vs. TV. The reason is that cable providers have to pay television networks and broadcasters per subscriber to carry the channel.

Streaming works the other way around: streamers like Netflix have to pay the cable provider for direct access to their network or face network congestion. Cable companies profit on both ends of that equation and in some cases get a portion of subscriber revenue too.