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March 11, 2013

Kiss Your Free HD TV Picture Goodbye

Filed under: Electronics — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:06 am

Last fall, the FCC issued an order allowing local cable companies to scramble or encrypt basic channels like the major broadcast networks and local TV stations. This means that every TV in your home will need to have a cable box, even if you have a brand new flat screen HDTV that currently is capable of displaying those stations in high definition without a box.

MrConsumer, for example, has small HDTVs in his office, kitchen, and guest room all of which just have the cable connected to them without a set-top box. And they all get a beautiful high definition picture thanks to the sets having a built-in QAM tuner. He doesn’t get cable channels like CNN on them, just local stations and the major broadcast networks. That’s fine, because these are secondary televisions.

Starting on April 10, 2013, however, according to a letter from MrConsumer’s cable company, RCN, they are going to encrypt these local and network stations. And MrConsumer’s HDTVs will become expensive paperweights.

FCC’s rules provide temporary relief, however.


All digital cable companies that wish to encyrpt their basic channels must:

“(i) offer to existing subscribers who subscribe only to the basic service tier and do not use a set-top box or CableCARD, the subscriber’s choice of a set-top box or CableCARD on up to two television sets without charge for two years from the date of encryption; (ii) offer existing subscribers who subscribe to a level of service above “basic only” but use an additional television set to access only the basic service tier without the use of a set-top box or CableCARD at the time of encryption, the subscriber’s choice of a set-top box or CableCARD on one television set without charge for one year from the date of encryption; ” -FCC MB Docket No. 11-169

Nowhere in the FCC order do they state what type of box must be provided free for one or two years to customers. And that is where cable companies can try to weasel out of providing a high definition box free to customers with high definition televisions.

Case in point is RCN, which buries in its FAQs this important detail.


“A customer subscribing to LIMITED Basic or higher level of service receiving RCN Limited Basic service on a secondary TV without RCN-supplied equipment is entitled to one standard definition box for one year.” [emphasis added]

A standard definition box by definition filters out the HD signal, so customers receiving those boxes will no longer be able to display a high definition picture on their HD sets.

MrConsumer contacted RCN and asked for and received a promise to be given an HD box free for one year. And, a subsequent discussion with an RCN executive also revealed that the company would in fact provide either a free SD (standard defintion) box or HD box to all customers. You just need to know to ask since their website does not disclose this option.

For other cable company customers, your turn to do deal with the problem is coming soon. You could be faced with receiving only an SD box for your HDTV, or having to rent an HD box for about $10 a month forever for every HDTV you own.

Of course, there is always the option of going back to rabbit ears.

Thanks, FCC.


• • •


  1. I have stuck with rabbit ears for most of my TVs.

    It’s quite shameful that the cable companies want to force customers to have a cable box even for a basic subscription, but I feel that if USA will truly be a capitalist society then the FCC should not be forcing companies to provide HD signals without cable boxes.

    Consumers often just go with the flow. If demand for cable without set-top boxes is high enough then perhaps some cable company will be bold enough to stick with that model.

    Comment by Wayne R — March 11, 2013 @ 9:41 am
  2. I watch all the local stations and get a beautiful HD picture and 5.1 sound for free with my indoor antenna. I decided long ago that cable was too expensive. Between what is broadcast over the air and available on disc and, now, streaming who needs cable?

    Comment by Jim — March 11, 2013 @ 10:22 am
  3. Got rid of my TV 7 months ago, I only use internet, I don’t miss it at all.

    Comment by Gina — March 11, 2013 @ 10:30 am
  4. So let me get this straight. This is for cable customers only. Dish or Direct TV customers are not affected? And if that is the case, it looks like there may be more future jumpers from cable to direct satellite.

    Edgar replies: Frankie, that is correct. Many people may have cable box on their main living room TV, but secondary TVs like the one in the kitchen may just have the raw cable, as I call it, going into it.

    Comment by Frankie — March 11, 2013 @ 10:39 am
  5. So how much cheaper is the SD box over a HD box?

    Edgar replies: An HD box is about $10 a month, and low-end SD DTA (digital transport adapter) is $2.95. I assume that a regular SD box is in between.

    Comment by Richard Ginn — March 11, 2013 @ 12:31 pm
  6. We’ve never had cable or satellite TV and have plenty of choices for viewing OTA TV.If you don’t want to pay,what they’re asking,just quit.

    Comment by jrj90620 — March 11, 2013 @ 12:37 pm
  7. Well Frankie if you move to Dish or Direct TV you have to have the boxes or else you have NO way to see networks like AMC, MTV, or ESPN.

    Comment by Richard Ginn — March 11, 2013 @ 2:56 pm
  8. I’m still confused. We have Dish and we have an OTA roof antenna that brings in HD to all of our TV’s. Does this mean that Dish would be able to charge us extra for HD and if we want to watch HD without paying Dish for the extra box, we would have to switch to our OTA antenna which limits us to Network Broadcast?

    Edgar replies: The FCC ruling only applies to cable, and not satellite providers.

    Comment by S. A. Lambert — March 11, 2013 @ 4:45 pm
  9. Then one would wonder how much a QAM tuner adds to the price of an HDTV, and why – since all cable companies will go this way soon – consumer electronics manufacturers only offer HDTVs with a QAM tuner. Perhaps manufacturers should offer non-QAM HDTV models to consumers who use cable boxes — or does Cable Inc. receive a subsidy from the manufacturer for every TV purchased with a QAM tuner.

    Comment by Michael R. — March 11, 2013 @ 5:31 pm
  10. Richard: I switched to Dish 15 years ago and just got my first flat screen with HD capability. I’m now enjoying HD on the local channels but probably won’t sign up for the cable channels HD as the picture is sharp without it. I have local cable for my phone and Internet, but adding TV as part of their bundle will cost me more than my current setup. No way will I ever go back to cable!

    Comment by Frankie — March 11, 2013 @ 8:05 pm
  11. Why are local channels being encrypted? Will they start airing porn shows starting April 10th?

    Edgar replies: Cable companies have been lazy, and don’t always go out to a customer’s house after they move and cancel service. That means the new owner/tenant can connect their TVs to the cable and will be get any of the unencrypted stations free. By scrambling everything, they will thwart cable theft, save trips to the house, force consumers to visit the cable company to pick up a new cable box when starting service (and save installation trips for the company), and give cable companies a new source of revenue for the additional boxes that will be required.

    Comment by Ruby — March 12, 2013 @ 4:34 am
  12. The only channels the put in the clear were/are FREE Over The Air Channels. They really aren’t giving you anything. They are now going to takeaway that and require a box. Cable has gotten so out of control that I’m cutting the cord this spring and putting up an antenna. I’ll use Media Center 7 as my DVR for OTA and stream other content as well as get disc based material. I’ll put the $125 a month I save to better use.

    Comment by Ben — March 12, 2013 @ 10:54 am
  13. Consider disconnecting and tell them why. I quit when it was 60 a month (last I heard it was 79 plus fees and the box rental). That is 720+ dollars per year (at the rate when I quit). You can buy 20-25 seasons worth of blu-ray/dvd for that and sell when you are done. They are also mostly commercial free too. Some of the older stuff you can find in ‘bargain bin’ and get a real deal (I picked up a mid 80s series entire run, 5 seasons, for 30 bucks). If you watch sports not that good of an option. But if all you do is watch a few tv shows…

    When I first got ‘basic’ cable it was 25 a month. In under 8 years they went from 25 to 60. I came across an ‘old’ 2001 bill and thought hey wait a min… It was a decent deal back then. Now not so much. Especially with the level of adverts they have now (and it was not that good a few years ago).

    Comment by me — March 12, 2013 @ 1:15 pm
  14. I live outside a major city on the east coast and receive about 40 over the air channels in uncompressed HDTV from my homemade antenna. I do not watch much tv because the content is not very good and I can not stand all the commercials. Even PBS has become an endless stream of infomercials and beg-a-thons. I do pay about $60. month for very high speed internet and there is more than enough varied content to watch anytime I want. I cut the cable 20 years ago and never looked back.

    Comment by McScrooge — March 12, 2013 @ 3:54 pm
  15. I too cut the cable in 2009 when I saw what I could get over the air for free. And the number of free OTA channels has grown since then. There are only two shows I consider “must see TV”, and both are on the major broadcast networks in beautiful Hi Def. With Netflix streaming to supplement that plus hundreds of other Internet streaming channels through Roku, I will never go back to paying to watch commercials. Anyone considering cutting the cord should go to, put in your address and it will show you what you can get OTA from your location with a rooftop antenna. And keep in mind that each channel listed may also have 2-3 sub channels. You can get a decent antenna and a rotor for about the cost of 2-3 months of the typical cable TV bill.

    Comment by Bob C. — March 12, 2013 @ 6:35 pm

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