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QAM Qualms?

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Update October 10th 2011:

Since this blog was first published Knology purchased Sunflower Broadband. Except for a $5 increase in the monthly charges ($61.90/month) programming and policies remained virtually the same, other than the occasional changes in QAM channels.

Knology has recently begun encrypting much of their Bronze Level Clear QAM High Definition and Standard Definition digital channels. As a result much of the content that was available via Clear QAM now requires either a HD Set Top Box ($10/month) or a SD Set Top Box ($5/month) for each TV, regardless of the capability of your TV's internal tuner. Channels that were in Clear QAM but now require a Knology Set Top Box to get either Standard Definition digital and/or High Definition include: ABC Family, Discovery, ESPN, ESPN2, Green Planet, Animal Planet, AMC, Science Channel, HGTV, and the Food Network.

I should also mention that the encryption process requires more bandwidth. Knology already compresses their digital and HD signals. To make up for the loss of bandwidth from encryption they will need to further compress those channels, or others, to make up the difference. This additional compression on channels that are already compressed will likely cause more "jitter" and "pixelation" issues.

Obviously Knology Bronze Level offering is no longer a bargain, especially if you have two or more TV's. This is readily apparent if you compare what ATT's Uverse offers. Their U200 offering gives you the equivalent of the Knology Bronze Level programming PLUS some nice additions like History2, Independent Film Channel, MTV, VH1, Biography, BBC America, The Golf Channel, Fox Soccer, The Cooking Channel, The Military Channel, DIY, Fuel TV, and Speed which are not available with Knology's Bronze Level.

So is ATT's Uverse the bargain that Knology's Bronze level used to be? I think so. For $69.00/month I was able to get their U200 with High Definition, a DVR , three additional HD receivers (total of 4 TV's), free installation and a $50 gift card with a fixed 12 month contract (30 day money back guarantee). I should note that I am already a ATT Uverse Interweb subscriber and this deal was worked out over the phone with a sales associate. Your mileage may vary, but this price and package is very comparable to what is available and shown online.

The DVR alone is worth the $7.10/month increase and has space for about 65 hours of HD content. I can record from any TV (up to 4 simultaneously) and play back to any TV. ATT Uverse will come into the house on a single twisted pair and the in-home installation will use my existing RG-6 coaxial cable so there will be no need to drill any additional holes. Knology's Bronze level with similar equipment would be about $110/month, but without the additional programming.

Thanks to all those who contacted me with updates for the Unofficial "Sunflower" Clear QAM Channel Guide, but after I delete the 20 or so digital and High Definition channels Knology is now encrypting I will no longer be keeping it up to date. Simply put isn't worth the effort as Knology's equipment and offerings are no longer competitive. IPTV is the future for at least the next 12 months in the Lawrence market.

Original "QAM Qualms" post, circa August 4, 2010

Considering what you get with Sunflower's Bronze Level cable it looks like fairly good value for money. For $57.90 a month you'll get upwards of 200 television channels, around 50 High Definition (HD) channels, Sunflower On Demand, Interactive Guide, over 48 CD quality digital music channels and advanced parental controls. They will even toss in a Standard Definition (SD) digital box at "no charge." All-in-all a fair bit of kit for a modest amount of money, but there are a couple of problems.

The "free" set top box, which actually costs you a fiver every month, doesn't output HD and many of those 200 channels are duplicate or triplicate feeds (analog, digital, and HD) of identical content so the available programming is far less than the available channels. What's more, if you have more than one TV you might need to add additional set top boxes, which have various options and come with added charges. If you order just one HD-DVR and a set top box for the TV's in the living room, family room, and a couple of bedrooms, your monthly payments could top $100.

Fortunately most TV's today come with built-in NTSC (analog), ATSC (over the air digital), and QAM (cable digital) tuners, so you can watch almost all the Bronze level content without the additional clutter, higher electric bills, or added monthly fees of multiple set top boxes. Simply plug Sunflower cable directly into the TV, tune the appropriate channel, then sit back and enjoy the program. However, TV's without set top boxes won't have access to Sunflower On Demand, Interactive Guide, Pay For View programs, and a few others.

Sunflower will even help you find some HD and SD programs without using a set top box. Their somewhat official, if woefully incomplete, Channel Guide lists the QAM channel of only 'local' programs. But local channels are only a small part of the programming available so I compiled a more complete but unofficial listing of available channels using the TV's built in tuners.

The Channel Gadget allows you to filter the listing by signal type so you can match it to your TV's tuner. I use it to label just the HD channels, around 50, and don't bother with any set top boxes. Keep in mind this is based only on personal experience and is in no way officially sanctioned by Sunflower.

The Unofficial Channel Guide and Channel Gadget can also be found on the web and you can download it as a text file, Excel spreadsheet, or Adobe PDF. On occasion Sunflower changes their QAM channels and this listing will need to be updated. If you find it valuable and notice any inaccuracies or omissions contact me and I'll updated it with your corrections.

Now if you are wondering why Sunflower lists only the local QAM channels in their guide, their representatives offer a couple of explanations. The most common are "the channels change frequently" and "national broadcasters forbid publication of that information." The first is true depending on your definition of 'frequently' but the later is clearly absurd. Commercial network revenues are directly related to their ratings and advertising rates, the harder it is to find their shows the lower their profits will likely be.

Why does Sunflower have such qualms about publishing all their clear QAM channels? Why mislead Bronze level subscribers with inaccurate package comparison that tout the need for a set top box when their own Channel Guide contradicts that? Your guess is as good as mine.

So if you don't need On Demand, Interactive Guide, or Pay For View programs on every set, Sunflower's Bronze level package is a real value. Customers who have TV's with QAM tuners don't need a set top box to enjoy both local and national HD broadcasts. Order a HD-DVR for your main TV but you can use the others without the added hassle or expense of multiple set top boxes. When you consider all that Sunflower Bronze level cable offers I think it offers some real advantages over the ATT Uverse, Direct TV, and Dish Network.

Comments

Sigmund 7 years ago

Looks like LJWorld disabled embedded contents from "nonauthorized" sites, which is too bad because they show on the "Edit" page, so you have to click "The Unofficial Channel Guide and Channel Gadget" hyperlink above, or the URL below. http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=trfwEJUly1hgC6lTE5zA0Pw&output=html

a_flock_of_jayhawks 7 years ago

most programmers and content providers require MVPDs, through carriage agreements, to establish and maintain some form of interdiction or conditional access in order to distribute their service.

kuhusker 7 years ago

This stinks, because it essentially makes most "basic" cable channels as restricted as what used to be called "premium" channels (i.e. HBO). And there is interdiction -- it's called coaxial cable, and the only way to watch the shows is to pay a nice man from the cable company to come out and hook you up.

It is such a silly idea to require encryption - it doesn't stop piracy - every show on cable TV, including networks like Showtime and HBO) are available in HD on the Internet for free, easily - but it does inconvenience paying customers.

I pay for my cable TV, like almost everyone else, and now I can't watch the channels I pay for, like ESPN and Comedy Central, except by using additional equipment that is expensive, I am forced to rent (can't buy) and has way less features then what I could buy myself if I were allowed.

a_flock_of_jayhawks 7 years ago

Can't buy, for now, but there's hope that DCAS may provide some relief. Content providers pay to produce their service and, naturally, they wish to recover those costs as well as make a profit. at it - that includes broadcasters who also own cable/satellite delivered networks and services. One can argue as to the value versus the price, but I believe that will change dramatically as publicly IP-delivered video services and wider availability of easy to use IP television appliances become more prevalent. A-la-carte services will likely become a reality in that scenario even without government intervention. Price per service may increase, though, due to the desire of the producer to recover production costs and leverage the popularity and subsequent profitability of particular services. Some niche services may briefly disappear, but I would expect them to re-emerge in some form or fashion.

a_flock_of_jayhawks 7 years ago

Overall, a nice rundown of the technology, Sig. Things are changing (as always). Keep us up to date on what's coming, too.

mizzou_jayhawk 7 years ago

I've been doing this too for almost three years now, it was great until recently when Sunflower moved Comedy Central, MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, ABC Family, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic (and all their HD counterparts) to being encrypted. There are two types of QAM, clearQAM and encryptedQAM. By FCC mandate, they have to carry the over-the-air channels as clearQAM (hence why it's published), the rest are purely at Sunflower's discretion (or otherwise per their terms of carriage). These terms are renegotiated every few years, and there seems to be a pattern of when they renegiate the result is that the channel is moved from clearQAM to encryptedQAM (which requires the set top box). Take for example ESPN, they just recently renegotiated that contract and in doing so brought ESPN3 to their subscribers, but that came at the expense of having to encrypt the ESPN broadcasts. My frustration only is that they won't make these contracts or terms of carriage agreements public. I'm hoping that with a switch in ownership to publicly traded Knology that we'll have better access to such agreements.

The reason I moved away from the setup boxes was that I wanted to DVR that I could have more control over, so I built a mediacenter pc using a HDHomerun network tuner and using MediaPortal software to run it. With this setup I could removed from my TV guide any channels that I don't want to see, re-order the guide, re-name channels etc. For example, in my tv guide, you'll never find Shop NBC, the Home Shopping Network or other such networks that I never want to watch and I never want to see listed. To be fair, I have to point out that I do pay a nominal fee for access to tv guide listings from Schedules Direct, and periodicly when the channels are remapped at the other end, the tv stops working until I remap my channels. For me personally this is not a problem, but if I had a household with children who want it to always "just work" I'd probably go another route.

Sigmund 7 years ago

I had the ESPN's, ABC Family HD, Disney HD, and Nick HD listed as ClearQAM, I have updated the Channel List/Guide and highlighted them in red to indicate currently encrypted. The analog SD versions of Disney and Nick are still there. Does anyone think that Disney and Nick required encryption of the HD version when their SD offerings and in the clear? I don't.

mizzou_jayhawk 7 years ago

Also to be fair to Sunflower, we are really luck here in Lawrence, compared to other national cable providers, we are one the few places where so many channels are available over clearQAM. I'd also guess that one of the other reasons that they don't publicly advertise this option is that there is no way they could offer customer support. The set top boxes provide an almost fool proof way for people to interact with their cable, and it provides a universal platform on which to offer customer support. It just simply wouldn't be feasible for their operators to know the in's and outs of every clearQAM device and they'd have lots of unhappy customers whose cable "doesn't work." This way, if you know what you're doing, they're cool with it, but they also don't want to confuse people (e.g. NTSC tuner vs clearQAM tuner, channel mapping etc.), especially after their digital switch a little over two years back.

Another consideration is that if you have a CableCard device e.g. Tivo, or other tuner (not widely available) you can get a cable card for $3.95/month from Sunflower. With a CableCard device you get the channels mapped for you automatically, and you can view the encryptedQAM channels too.

Various References: http://www.cablelabs.org/ http://www.tru2way.com/ http://www.team-mediaportal.com/ http://www.silicondust.com/ (HDHomeRun)

kuhusker 7 years ago

Sigmund, what an excellent post, and thank you so much for the up-to-date QAM listings. I have a TV tuner on my PC and my mappings are very out of date. I was dreading the fall TV task of going in, re-scanning and trying to figure out all the channels again.

I've linked to your post on my Lawrence Broadband Observer blog, too:

http://lawrencebroadband.blogspot.com/2010/08/sunflower-qam-channels-in-lawrence.html

Sigmund 7 years ago

The Unofficial Channel Guide is a google doc and is available to all and it works nicely with most browsers on most phones. I intend to keep it up to date but currently there are a few listings that need to be updated, in particular the newly encrypted ones.. If you and your fellow readers at lawrencebroadband.com wish to help maintain it I will give read/write access. Otherwise just send me a quick email and I will make the corrections.

You would think that the non-permium channels that sell commercials would want their broadcast available to as many households as possible, especially in this economy. Perhaps they are testing the price elasticity of demand of their service? The need for a set top box for their service (and the commercials that run on their network) would seem to benefit the cable service provider (additional set top box fees) and not necessarily the program provider (their commercials reach fewer consumers). Besides encryption takes up more of Sunflowers limited bandwidth than does ClearQAM.

If too many more channels go encrypted and I have to go set top box I think the ATT Uverse offering is far superior to Sunflower Cablevision. Hopefully our new Knology Overlords will realize that ClearQAM for their Basic Tier is a competitive advantage and most Lawrencian's are very price sensitive these days. Yes additional set top boxes will mean more revenue per box, but likely at the cost of fewer boxes and customers. They should not forget that OTA offers great HD programming and a basic Netflix account offers a great selection of On Demmand HD programming. If Knology wants to dominate Lawrence for Cable TV, offering and Basic HD programming without the need for set top box would certainly do it. Once the economy improves up selling basic customers to premium would be much easier.

kuhusker 7 years ago

Good points all.

I think Sunflower's biggest advantage over U-Verse right now is the flexibility of not needing a box. If all of Sunflower's channels are encrypted and I need a box, then yeah, might as well go with U-Verse, since they require a box too, but with much better UI and functionality and more channels.

I did a really detailed comparison between U-Verse and Sunflower (http://lawrencebroadband.blogspot.com/) last year, and Sunflower won for television on the strength of that flexibility, with some assistance from the CableCard support in the TiVo.

However, as a couple folks pointed out, it might not be Sunflower or Knology's choice - if the networks themselves want to force encryption, that is their right, but for the life of me I can't understand how that makes sense. It's not like cable TV signal piracy is a major problem - and assuming you are a legit paying subscriber, once the content you paid for is in your house, why shouldn't you have the right to watch it however you want.

a_flock_of_jayhawks 7 years ago

"My frustration only is that they won't make these contracts or terms of carriage agreements public. I'm hoping that with a switch in ownership to publicly traded Knology that we'll have better access to such agreements."

Good luck. The US Congress had the major programmers testifying before them and could not or would not get those agreements. Since they are private agreements between two entities, there's nothing mandating them to make them public. And the programmers probably do not want the public knowing how much compensation they receive, else they would have to explain to the public the reasoning behind the various terms. If I remember right, Disney (ESPN, ABC, Disney) were the only ones that made some of the terms of certain agreements public during their testimony, and that may have been more by accident.

kuhusker 7 years ago

One way these could be made public, albeit not instantly, is for the franchise agreements between the cities and cable companies to require that these be made public. Probably won't happen, but it technically could.

a_flock_of_jayhawks 7 years ago

I doubt that would happen since the agreements usually cannot violate the terms of agreements in place, etc. Franchise agreements have been weakened in recent years due to the emergence of statewide agreements, primarily forged by competitive providers to avoid delays associated with building and serving areas.

Sigmund 7 years ago

You would think that the non-permium channels that sell commercials would want their broadcast available to as many households as possible, especially in this economy. Perhaps they are testing the price elasticity of demand of their service? The need for a set top box for their service (and the commercials that run on their network) would seem to benefit the cable service provider (additional set top box fees) and not necessarily the program provider (their commercials reach fewer consumers). Besides encryption takes up more of Sunflowers limited bandwidth than does ClearQAM.

If too many more channels go encrypted and I have to go set top box I think the ATT Uverse offering is far superior to Sunflower Cablevision. Hopefully our new Knology Overlords will realize that ClearQAM for their Basic Tier is a competitive advantage and most Lawrencian's are very price sensitive these days. Yes additional set top boxes will mean more revenue per box, but likely at the cost of fewer boxes and customers. They should not forget that OTA offers great HD programming and a basic Netflix account offers a great selection of On Demmand HD programming. If Knology wants to dominate Lawrence for Cable TV, offering Basic HD programming without the need for set top box would certainly do it. Once the economy improves up selling basic customers to premium would be much easier.

Sorry for the duplicate post, but this is really a belongs on a different thread ....

kuhusker 7 years ago

If you can duplicate the post, I feel OK duplicating a chunk of my reply :-)

As a couple folks pointed out, it might not be Sunflower or Knology's choice - if the networks themselves want to force encryption, that is their right, but for the life of me I can't understand how that makes sense. It's not like cable TV signal piracy is a major problem - and assuming you are a legit paying subscriber, once the content you paid for is in your house, why shouldn't you have the right to watch it however you want.

I think Sunflower's biggest advantage over U-Verse right now is the flexibility of not needing a box. If all of Sunflower's channels are encrypted and I need a box, then yeah, might as well go with U-Verse, since they require a box too, but with much better UI and functionality and more channels.

I did a really detailed comparison between U-Verse and Sunflower (http://lawrencebroadband.blogspot.com/) last year, and Sunflower won for television on the strength of that flexibility, with some assistance from the CableCard support in the TiVo.

Sigmund 7 years ago

For those that are interested in cutting free of Sunflower Cablevision and getting HDTV free Over The Air, there is an article on Lifehacker.com about a $17 ATSC HD antenna that, "works FAR BETTER than the store bought versions and I'm getting an even BETTER picture than cable. Netflix, Hulu, and rented DVDs cover any shows I wouldn't otherwise watch with this. Cable TV is charging you for stuff commercials should already pay for." http://lifehacker.com/5609265/save-significant-cash-and-keep-the-hd-video-with-a-diy-hdtv-antenna

Sigmund 5 years, 10 months ago

Updated the Unofficial Sunflower Bronze Guide to reflect the encryption of the standard definition digital and high definition channels including ABC Family, Discovery, ESPN, ESPN2, Green Planet, Animal Planet, AMC, Science Channel, HGTV, and the Food Network.

If someone wants to take over this Google Spreadsheet and maintain it please contact me, I am switching from Knology to ATT Uverse.

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