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Published: 2008-12-10 - 16:29:03
Home Theater : Ask The Expert

Can I Buy My Own HDTV Cable Box Instead of Renting One?

By Chris Boylan

Hi, Big Picture Big Sound,

Earlier this year I purchased a 42-inch plasma with an HD tuner. With this I was able to receive HD broadcasts for stations available on the "basic extended" tier from my cable provider. When my cable provider recently re-priced their services and offered a "digital starter" plan for the same monthly rate as my current service, I switched to their digital offer because certain programs that previously were available on my current tier were moved to the low-end digital tier.

Since the digital converter was installed for my new digital starter service, I no longer am able to receive the HD broadcasts from stations that are available on the digital starter tier. When I asked the cable provider about this, they said I would need an HD converter to receive those broadcasts rather than "free" digital converter they provided with my new service. Of course, the cable provider gladly will replace my free digital converter for an HD converter... for an additional $6.50 monthly rental fee.

My question is: Can HD converters be purchased at retail stores that are compatible with and can be used instead of renting the HD converters the cable company wants to provide? If so, what recommendations, and pros and cons, can you make for the case to purchase a non-cable company specific HD converter versus renting the cable company specific HD converter?

Thanks for your advice!

-Garry B.


Answer:

Hello, Garry,

I assume you have already tried plugging your TV into the raw cable feed to see what channels you can still receive, yes?  You may stll be able to get some of your cable channels in HD, including the local networks, though the channel numbers may not match up with what you see on the cable box, and certain channels that you are entitled to in your package may be scrambled or otherwise unavailable.

To answer to your question, cable providers are, by law, supposed to support the ownership of external set-top box hardware by the customer but in reality their support for this type of hardware is limited at best. Be wary of buying used cable boxes on eBay as these are frequently stolen or "non-returned" cable boxes that are bound to a specific cable service and will most likely not work with your own local provider.

th-50pz80q-256_1.jpg
Panasonic's TH-50PZ80Q is the first TV to support the tru2way cable platform.
The initial CableCARD standard was intended to help faciliate the use of customer-owned hardware, but the first implementation of CableCARD never supported on-screen guide information nor video-on-demand nor PPV (Pay Per View) because it was a one-way (receive only) format in its implementation. For this reason, as well as half-hearted support by the cable operators, CableCARD has never really caught on.  The most popular of the current CableCARD-based 3rd party DVRs are probably the TiVo HD DVR and the Moxi HD DVR.  Both units get around the guide limitation by providing their own guide.  But the TiVo guide and service require a monthly subscription fee or one-time lifetime subscription fee for the device, and the Moxi HD DVR, though it requires no subscription fee, is fairly expensive at $799.

The reality is, if you cannot tune in the channels you want via your TV's built-in QAM tuner, and you don't want to pay the monthly TiVo fee or buy the Moxi DVR, then your only real options are to lease the HD box from your cable service, or dump cable entirely and put an antenna on your roof to get your HDTV channels for free.

A new platform called tru2way is being introduced now in the United States to potentially address this situation. The tru2way standards are being developed by a consortium of CE manufacturers in cooperation with the cable industry as a whole.  With tru2way, a TV, set-top box or DVR device has the tru2way "middleware" built into it, as well as a CableCARD slot.  But unlike current CableCARD devices, the tru2way devices support two-way communication between the cable company and the consumer, so the cable company can deliver robust fully interactive services and premium channels to their customers without the need for an additional set-top box.

Panasonic is the first manufacturer to support this with their TH-50PZ80Q HDTV.  But I believe tru2way-enabled service is currently only available in certain areas of Chicago and Denver. The initial consumer roll-out began in October of this year.  Assuming more tru2way-enabled devices and TVs become available, and more local cable providers come on-board with the tru2way platform, the need for an external, cable company-provided set top box should be reduced.  But for now, unfortunately, your choices are pretty limited.

You can read more about tru2way at www.tru2way.com.

Anyway, I hope this helps.

-Chris

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