Posts Tagged ‘tivo’

Anecdotes from Comcast’s mostly-digital transition

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Comcast is switching most of its markets to “mostly” digital signaling.  That is, they’re switching many of the channels that they used to carry via analog (including ESPN, Comedy Central, A&E, and the like — what they dub “expanded basic”) to digital.  This means that if you used to watch these channels with your old (NTSC-tuning) TV or VCR, you need to get a converter box.  Comcast is ostensibly doing this because converting to digital frees up a lot of spectrum on their broadcast medium to send more bandwidth-intensive media (read:  HDTV and higher-speed networking).  However, they’re also insisting that they “must” encrypt heretofore unencrypted channels because their “contract” requires them to.  This makes no sense.  If their contract requires them to encrypt or scramble channels that they’ve never encrypted or scrambled before, haven’t they been breaking the contract?  This smells made-up to me.  Their contradictory explanations are available in their FAQ.

So why do I care?  Well, I’d rather not have to get a digital box if I don’t have to.  Decoding digital cable and unencrypting digital cable are two separate things, and with this move, Comcast is (yet again) attempting to conflate them.  (Tivos & Cable-company cable boxes do both).  Many HDTVs, including the small Samsung one that I just wall-mounted in my kitchen, include so-called “unencrypted digital cable” (clear-QAM) tuners.  In cases like that, where is a person supposed to even put a box?  (I’d probably have to build a shelf above the TV).  Clear-QAM tuners are especially useful for watching broadcast HD channels via cable (as in my area, where antenna reception is terrible), since FCC regulations require cable companies to send anything that they receive via antenna in unencrypted form over cable.  But expanded-basic is technically exempt from such regulations.  Technically, Comcast probably can do what they’re doing.  (They’ve advertised quite recently that they “don’t charge extra” for additional TVs and even boasted about not needing additional hardware during the digital-over-the-air transition.  This move could be interpreted as invalidating those claims).  But why require the box?  According to their FAQ, they do require a box for expanded basic, even for TVs that have clear-QAM tuners.  They go on to outline an inelegant kludge to watch expanded basic and broadcast-HD using a splitter and switch.  But they also say that each house qualifies for up to three free expanded-basic converter boxes if you pay for expanded-basic coverage.  (This is probably to cover their asses with regard to previous sales claims that there weren’t additional fees to watch those channels).  So, it actually costs them money to ship out a box to me that I don’t want and don’t need, and which doesn’t actually seem required by their content contracts (or else it would’ve already been scrambled).  WTF is going on?

Well, in the Cambridge (Boston) area, Comcast switched to digital this week.  I reprogrammed the TV in my office’s gym, which features a clear-QAM tuner, just out of curiosity.  Lo and behold, expanded basic is in fact being broadcast in the clear — no box is actually required.  Granted, this is not a supported way to watch the channels & it could disappear at any time, but I’ll ride this out for as long as I can.

I think that this could be temporary.  First, to keep costs down, Comcast’s “free” expanded-basic converter boxes perhaps don’t do encryption, or if they do, it’s integrated.  However, the FCC requires separable security (cablecards) in hardware that the cable companies deploy so as to force standardization of the security technology, which does raise the price slightly.  Though Comcast can (and has, in some markets) apply for a waiver for low-cost boxes like this, they probably hedged their bets & went with the lowest-cost, safest solution:  a clear-qam decoder.  However, this probably is a temporary situation.  It could also be that the encryption is disabled in the boxes that Comcast is distributing (they usually are remotely addressable) pending the outcome of application for FCC waivers in most markets.  (I’m not sure what the status of that is here in the Boston area). If such waivers come through and if the boxes being distributed actually do have integrated encryption capabilities, Comcast could simply switch it on, thus killing the clear-QAM expanded basic in one fell swoop.  From their FAQ, that does appear their long term plan.  If/when that happens, and if Verizon FIOS doesn’t come to my area first, I’ll just get another Tivo.  (The Comcast SD-only expanded-basic boxes are inelegant kludge — if I have to install a box for my other TVs, it’s going to be a good box that can do stuff like play video and audio from my computers, and stream Netflix).  It’ll be a cold day in hell when I pay Comcast for the “benefit” of their crappy hardware.  I don’t mind paying for something when I get a valuable product or service in return, but I surely do mind paying more for the same thing for no discernable reason.

TiVo seeks $1B in damages against EchoStar

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Apparently it’s come out that TiVo is seeking 1 billion dollars in damages in its ongoing suit against EchoStar (parent of Dish Network) for violating their patents on low-cost DVR manufacturing.  Though this may seem like a lot, this comes after separate rulings for $90 Million and $190 Million judgments against EchoStar in this same suit.  Over the past several years, EchoStar has attempted to avoid TiVo’s patent-licensing demands by implementing what they claim are non-infringing workaround solutions.  However, the court has ruled that these workarounds have been transparently similar to TiVo’s patent, and has even taken the somewhat unusual stance to demand that EchoStar consult the court first before implementing any further “workarounds”.  This latest demand by TiVo seems to be an attempt to punish EchoStar for what seems to have been willful game-playing with the court and deception regarding their “non-infringing” solutions.

This case is fascinating to me for several reasons.  Primarily, it’s sort of a lightning rod for intellectual-property discussions.  In computer-science circles, this seems to be the big one that anti-software-patent folks point to.  First, I hear people claim that this is solely a software patent, and since they don’t believe software is patentable, they don’t believe TiVo’s case has any merit.  Even if software wasn’t patentable, that argument fails here because there’s a large hardware component (compression hardware-assists — MPEG2 encoders) that are part of the overall system described in the patent, thus this is not solely a software solution.

The other argument is that what TiVo did was obvious and therefore their patent is invalid.  “It’s a VCR using digital parts — obvious!”  Except, combining the digital parts in such a way as to keep the price cheap is a key component of this patent.  Using a software-only solution to construct a DVR is, even now, cost-prohibitive.  (Good ones have hardware encoders — that’s the point).  Also, anyone who’s actually used TiVo software knows that they pioneered tons of stuff that nobody had done with a VCR, such as the “peek-ahead” method of fast-forwarding.  (If you fast-forward and press play, the recording actually starts slightly BEFORE where you had seen when you pressed play — this feature is not feasible with a tape-based VCR).  Lots of DVRs have that now, but I’m pretty sure TiVo did it first.  So, TiVo pursuing its intellectual property is entirely reasonable.  And when the other side is a maliciously bad actor who consistently turned down reasonable licensing deals and instead made transparently-infringing “workarounds”, well, that’s exactly why the tort system has punitive damages.

As to whether or not software should be patentable, I’m fairly firmly planted in the “pro” camp.  We need patent reform to weed out useless patents (such as the string of “on the Internet!” patents of the late-90s/early 2000s, where you could take any algorithm, slap “on the Internet!” on the end of it, and get a patent.  See “one click” from Amazon).  However, we increasingly live in a digital world.  Most things, at some level, are largely AD/DA converters with microcontrollers.  Since we already model complex systems in software (and develop predictive models all the time), the leap to making a physical, real-world-controlling manifestation is frequently a matter of having the right servos, AD/DA converters, and so on.  In other words, if everything eventually becomes controllable primarily through software and we eliminate software patents, does that mean that nothing is (or should be) patentable?  Whether they come out and acknowledge it or not, that seems to be the logical conclusion of the anti-software-patent argument.