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ClearQAM Getting Attention as An Option for Low Cost HDTV

While the obvious low-cost way to get DTV is to put up an antenna—which in some cases can be as simple as a set of “rabbit ears” and a loop—in some locations cable TV may be the only option. Many purchasers of new DTV sets may not realize their cable companies now offer local broadcast HDTV programming unencrypted on their cable systems, allowing reception on DTV sets with “ClearQAM” tuners and USB tuners such as the Artec T18AR, the Pinnacle Ultimate HD Stick with beta software and the announced but not yet released Hauppauge HVR-950Q.

Even though I have the minimum basic cable (under $11/month) at my house, I’m able to receive most of the local market stations’ HDTV signals on my Artec T18AR tuner over cable. Thanks to recent articles in the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, the secret is out. I hope broadcasters, and if necessary, the FCC, insist that cable companies carry broadcast DTV signals unencrypted so that set-top boxes or CableCards will not be required to watch TV on other TV sets around the house.

Gregory Karp’s article Spending Smart–Get clearer signals about HDTV, such as getting it cheaply describes the antenna and set-top box approach for over the air reception, noting that the signals are available now, but adds, “Or, if you only need the broadcast channels and don’t want to mess with an antenna, you can drop to the lowest level of non-digital cable TV service and still receive digital and HD broadcasts. An additional benefit is that in some markets you’ll receive multiple networks from different cities, which allows you to view more local news or sports events than you would otherwise see.” Karp warns that you’ll get mostly broadcast channels, since the other digital channels are encrypted, and that you won’t be able to get the program grid or video-on-demand content.

In a response to a query about QAM in his Faster Forward column in the Washington Post, Rob Pegoraro described using a TV set with a QAM tuner to pick up local stations’ HDTV programming on cable systems in an earlier column and listed some of the frustrations readers had with cable QAM reception this column. One reader commented, “The most frustrating thing I have found about QAM is that there seems to be no way to find out what channels a particular cable company offers in clear QAM.” The channel numbers don’t match the over-the-air channel numbers and you have to rescan all channels (a lengthy process) to see if any new channels have been added. Another reader noticed that channel positions on his cable system change frequently.

I’ve had similar experiences with my cable system; the channels do shift around. Recently, however, they changed the program numbers (as displayed in the TSReader) of the digital SD feeds to more closely match the over-the-air channel numbers. If you have a DTV tuner with ClearQAM capability, hook it up to your cable feed and let me know if your local channels are available and how they are labeled.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.