QAM is the basically the “cable” language that your television speaks, and if you’re enjoying the broadcast channels on your TV via cable without a cable box, the route you’re taking is called ClearQAM. It allows you to receive the basic of basic cable channels without the need for decryption, as long as you have an active connection to the cable network. Well, as part of the quest to kill analog cable dead, and of course to keep former cable customers (like a relative of mine) from getting 20 or so channels for free for years after they cancel their cable, the cable industry has been lobbying to get rid of ClearQAM and encrypt those channels. Boxee has been a little worried as of late that a ruling on this would interfere with their boxes’ ability to access basic cable channels without the need for additional hardware, and, along with lobbying partners at Comcast, seem to be pleased with a new ruling on the matter.
The new ruling that boils down to this: ClearQAM access to those channels is going bye-bye, but cable providers will be required to provide you with a free cable box or CableCARD (and only if you grab it soon after the policy goes into effect), so you don’t have to spend good money on something you don’t want if the most basic cable is all you’re interested in. For now, at least. The freebie is only good for five years before they can start charging you for it. This will also lock out the tuners in HTPCs without an expensive CableCARD adapter (which typically runs about $150).
The good news is that many new TVs are at least coming with the capability to get cable box apps built in, and other new devices like game consoles and streaming boxes should be getting the same sooner rather than later. The bad news is that this is a harbinger of what’s to come: the attack on free broadcast TV. Wireless companies want the large broadcast spectrum really badly, and with the sub-15% of Americans who get their TV exclusively this way, will almost certainly get their way in the next 20 years. Any deals they cut to ensure continued free access to those channels will almost certainly be re-negotiated or simply ignored after the towers are dismantled and it’s too late to go back, and everyone will be stuck paying the cable companies. And so it begins, but at least you can say you’ve known about it all along now.
Boxee makes a great product, but any lobbying by companies that claims to “remove restrictions to open the door for innovation” has historically proven to actually be “close the door to competition, and make us a lot of money.” And make no mistake: cable companies stand to profit substantially when they’re not the ones providing you with your cable box anymore — avoiding the maintenance stocking, and support expenses from their ledger will save them tens if not hundreds of millions a year, even when they lose revenue from cable box rental fees. If Boxee has Comcast as a partner, you can bet that there’s some kind of front-end or cable-box-replacement deal in the works between the two companies, and that saving/making them money — not “innovation” — is the root of this ruling. And of course, the final indignity is that the IP-based services that are supposed to make up for this loss are likely subject to bandwidth charges that count toward your monthly cap, so you’re paying for what was once free no matter how you slice it.
If you value your FreeQAM access and/or broadcast TV, you can contact the FCC and voice your concerns ( I suggest a phone call or ideally send a certified letter, as those will get the most attention):