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September 26, 2008

Digital TV Failure

TV used to be so simple, you bought a TV and it just worked. It didn't matter if you were using an antenna, hooked into cable, satellite, a video game or your camcorder, it just worked. The digital TV era has ushered in a complex mess that just never seems to get to a stable working point.

In the US, the format for the Over-The-Air (OTA) digital broadcasts, those you can pick up with an antenna, was standardized and is solidly deployed and quite functional. Canada has adopted the same standard and deployment has been slow to non-existent. If you receive your TV OTA, this is well standardized and regulated model and its pretty straightforward to figure out what you need and get it working. You take your antenna, plug it into a digital tuner and voila. Although on the downside, the increased complexity of having to search out channels and poor products in the space make it more complicated to do simple things.

That is all well and good, but most people don't receive their TV via an antenna any more, cable and satellite dominate. Cable was traditionally almost identical to OTA, you plugged in the cable and there were all the channels. In the digital realm, all hell broke loose, with proprietary standards and deployments and customer lock in from the cable companies. They basically mirrored how the satellite companies did things. You bought the hardware from the company and that was the only way to access their services. The hardware controlled and regulated your access to television. In the US, the FCC didn't like the anti-competitive marketplace this created, it certainly was a bad thing for the consumer. So they spent a long time creating a unified standard with the companies, CableCARD, and mandated that they use it. The device took so long in development, that it was pretty much obsolete before it was ever delivered. The cable companies reluctantly deployed them when they were demanded, but other than regular TV, many of the newer features like Video-On-Demand (VoD) simply wouldn't work with them. Over the past many years, cable companies have been making more and more services inaccessible to CableCARDs, introducing Switched-Digital-Video (SDV) for example. The deployment rate for CableCARDs is staggeringly low compared to Set-Top-Boxes (STB). More surprisingly, is that even though this is standardized and mandated such that 3rd parties can make compatible hardware, there is very little compatible hardware out there. It's not clear if the corporations or the process crippled and delayed the product so as to make it nearly useless, but that is the end result and its continuing to occur with the discussions on a new version. The current state of things is that they've obsoleted a lot of older products, it is confusing to figure out how and if something will work and 3rd party products are being squeezed out more and more. You used to be simply able to split the cable or reconnect it to another device like a VCR, but now you'll likely have to spend some money to make that happen, if its even possible.

In Canada the future is even murkier. There are no regulations on digital cable distribution, vendor hardware and lock in is where its at. While deployment for OTA digital is now mandated for August 31, 2011, it won't really change anything else in the market. HDTV seems to be the catalyst that is driving consumers. I have friends in the US who are forced into hardware they don't want or don't want to use because there is no other choice to receive HDTV from their cable company. In Canada the lack of any standards means 3rd parties, such as TiVo are completely locked out of access to the HDTV market as cable companies want to retain control and profit with STBs. The problem has forced TiVo to back out of their entrance into Canada as they can't make any solid inroads without HDTV capability. For many in Canada the choice is simple, because there isn't one, buy what they are selling. For me, I'm holding on to analog and standard definition for the time being, until there is some clear path or tipping point to upgrade into the digital realm. While I do utilize digital and HDTV services, the bulk of my TV reception comes from analog services. I've found the HDTV service to be extremely lacking, at least 50% of the time the programs are unwatchable due to audio or picture problems on Shaw cable service.

Comments

Well I bought the converter box and my lady friend bought new digital tv's and expensive antennas and power strips.

Neither of us can afford this stuff.

So she spend $390 on a tv and $60 on an antenna and $25 on a power surge protecting outlet thingy.
AND now she gets NO tv except for the snowing analog that will soon go away. The analog tv gets a better picture.

I, however, am going to college at a big city.
I got a converter box and antenna (UHF) and an amplifier. Sometimes I get a signal, but the sound is very weak and it breaks apart and often has a box that says "no signal" for many minutes or hours at a time.

Let's face it. Television over the air is dead.
I refuse to pay for cable tv.

Television is dead.

I can go on my computer, click on NOAA and get my weather graph in seconds, know what I need to know about the day and then be done with it.

I do NOT need to listen to inane dribble and I do not need to watch commercial come ons.

Let's face it, TV is dead.

Now lets get on with our lives, read a book, check what you need to have online and let the dead bury the dead.

TV is dead.

Posted by: Charles Knight at May 6, 2009 12:41 AM

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