If you’re one of the people who have been watching basic cable TV without a subscription, then enjoy it while it lasts because the days of “borrowing” other people’s basic digital TV connection are about to be over. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are close to allowing major cable companies like Comcast Basic Cable to start encrypting basic-tier signals in a bid to reduce theft and the resulting service calls.
FCC officials revealed that FCC Chair Julius Genachowski has asked fellow commissioners to reverse the encryption prohibition enacted in 1994. Last year, the agency considered allowing encryption following requests from other cable providers, such as New York-area based Cablevision Systems Corp. (CVC) and RCN Telecom Services.
When RCN conducted a service audit in Chicago last year, they found that about one-fifth of the 134 households that were cut off eventually contacted the company to subscribe, which was “clear evidence that they had previously been viewing cable without paying,” according to RCN’s filing to the FCC.
In a separate filing with the FCC, Cablevision has stated that as a result of basic service encryption, it found that the need to send technical crews in trucks to disconnect service became completely unnecessary. Cablevision released a statement, saying that this “proves the environmental benefits of eliminating the encryption prohibition.”
The benefits of encrypting the basic tier would let Comcast start and stop service remotely, which customers find more convenient than scheduling an appointment with a technician. This also saves money on labor and resources, reducing the need for gas and installation equipment.
TVs with modern tuners can receive the unencrypted basic-service local and cable stations, which are broadcast in digital format. The more expensive and exclusive programming tiers are already encrypted, which will not be affected by the FCC’s latest proposal.
According to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, an estimated 5 percent of homes near cable lines had accessed cable they didn’t pay for, which amounted to almost $5 billion in lost revenue in 2004.
For the millions like me who already pay for Digital TV, this comes as a surprise because I incorrectly assumed that cable companies were already allowed to block non-paying households from piggybacking on somebody else’s paid digital signal. While this coming development may be a downer for people who want to cut corners on home entertainment, this is good news for paying subscribers, in terms of principle and picture quality. Unwittingly sharing your cable TV with someone else weakens the signal you receive in your own household, degrading the picture quality (if there’s any signal left for you after your neighbour is done hogging it). Basic cable is important, but it’s not clean air or water, so technically it’s still a luxury rather than a right. This proposal is pretty much a no-brainer, so expect the FCC to lift the encryption ban soon–and start shopping for a digital TV service if you haven’t already.