What’s on your TV: cable, satellite or OTA + the Web?

Someone asked today on a local mailing list for suggestion on local television options: Dish, DirecTV or Comcast (our local MSO).

I noted that it used to be that if you wanted to get reasonable TV service throughout your home, cable offered the best option requiring no additional set top boxes for a good variety of programming. That changed last year when Comcast changed their channel map: as you’ll see here, I am no fan of that move nor Comcast’s practices, as they forced customers to install new set top boxes last year.

Although we wanted to cancel Comcast, we kept the service (as noted here) as WRT the alternative, they offered the best value for television and we remain a customer (full dsclosure: as they offer to many concerned customers, they offered us an excellent deal on free set top boxes and discounted HD-DVRs). However, with Hulu’s new subscription model, Netflix on-demand, good digital TV reception in much of Medina (free, over-the-air channels, including our local affiliates), we are considering dropping cable TV once again. YMMV.

I would like to see AT&T or Verizon apply for a TV franchise and offer a competitive package. Dish and Direct now over some interesting packages worth considering.

If you have a high-speed data service and all you want is basic channels, with local affiliates and some premium programming, try starting with an OTA digital antenna (if your TV is digital ready – if not, invest in an inexpensive converter box as referenced here) and a service such as Hulu. There are some very competitive offerings from Qwest for high-speed data that offer incredible speeds for a lot less than Comcast you may want to consider.

What do you think?

Tags: Comcast, television, DVR, FCC, policy.

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Thinking about ditching cable TV? Steps to a more integrated entertainment experience with Windows and Xbox 360

Microsoft Office Clip ArtLast Thanksgiving, I talked with my friend, prolific blogger/ Twitterer Beth Blecherman (aka techmama on Twitter) in Silicon Valley about the move in our house away from cable to a system that would allow us to get our TV entertainment programming using the free digital airwaves and the wide Internet pipe I had coming in the side of our home.

I’ve read that the average monthly cable bill in the States is $58.80, more than $700 per year. Given that we pay more than $100 a month to our cable provider, Comcast, for cable TV and internet, there’s an incentive to consider a move… actually, more of a migration. I noted some of my frustration in post "My life as a customer: this week, it’s about cable television… and more than the 2009 DTV" and since exacerbated by the changes required at home. More frustrating than the cost of the digital service are the new boxes I have to add between my cable coming out of the wall and my HD-ready TVs: new Comcast supplied digital set top boxes (STBs) and inability to no longer get digital and HD directly on my TVs equipped with digital tuners.

So, back to my discussion with Beth. Noting this growing frustration, I talked about our moves in our own household for leveraging the Internet and my existing computers and devices in the home, namely our Media Center PC and Xbox 360. Alas, our ReplayTV would be relegated to recording local stations that were still available for the time being on the remaining analogue feed (Channels 2-30).

For local channels, we get most of what we need over the air and free of charge. Mind you, it was much better when Comcast provided the 1-99 channel map in the clear (meaning, you could view the channels without a converter box): when they discontinued the analog signal and and moved the entire channel map to digital, they no longer provided these channels in the clear. That means that while I could get CNN and CNBC on all my TVs without special equipment before, Comcast customers now need to have a Comcast set-top box on each TV to decrypt the channels above Channel 30.

Sorry, kids: the Replay TV no longer gets the SciFi Channel.

This also means the capabilities in our new digital ready TVs will be redundant and – even worse – marginalized: I’ve found (YMMV) the inexpensive boxes that Comcast intends to provide "for free" don’t provide the clarity or experience customers I used to get from the digital HD provided via a direct cable connection.

As I noted before, we have a Media Center PC at the centre of our system, with Xbox 360’s as Media Center Extenders in other rooms in the house. Until recently, the vast majority of our time-shifted entertainment viewing came from our ReplayTV DVRs for watching programming from the main networks and several premium channels.

With our first Windows XP Media Center, which we replaced with Windows Vista and more recently migrated to Windows 7, we usd the on-board analogue broadcast tuner card to get free over the air television and channels from our cable provider. As the US moved to digital last year (as I initially chronicled here and elsewhere on this blog), you now need to upgrade to a suitable and supported digital tuner card or USB peripheral, or connect a digital converter box in order to get digital TV programming. (Our local network affiliates including PBS broadcast in digital as well as high definition digital: to see which stations you should be able to receive, more information is available at With this tuner card, your Media Center computer can receive what’s called local "over-the-air" (aka OTA) television broadcasts with a with a suitable room-based or attic-mounted digital antenna, or cable signals broadcast "in the clear" for digital and HD ready equipment capable of receiving clearQAM channels. (Most current TVs already are digital ready, capable of receiving local channels via OTA ATSC.)

(For more on this switch, see the site DTV Answers: What you need to know about the February 17, 2009 switch to DTV.  This site provides info on the switch from the old analogue TV signals to digital television, or DTV.  For more information, visit the US FCC website on the digital TV transition at We purchased an amplified indoor antenna for one TV not near an antenna drop to get the signal.)

So that covers ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and a few other channels available OTA.

But what about on-demand/ time shifted and premium programming?

As noted in the Popular Mechanics article, How to Ditch Your Cable Provider Without Giving Up on TV, you can also get premium content on the web…

"Okay, that takes care of local channels, but cable offers hundreds. What about ESPN? CNN? HBO? What about video on demand? Can you replace those once the coaxial cable is cut? The honest answer is that, if you love surfing through an endless series of channels, then nothing will truly replace cable. But according to a 2007 Nielsen study, the average American household received 104 channels—and watched only 15 of them regularly. So if statistics are any measure, a broad selection of content is important to viewers, but sheer quantity is not.

"A surprising amount of TV and movie content is now available over the Internet for free or for a nominal price. The richest and most impressive source of Internet video, aside from outright torrent theft, is Netflix’s “Watch Instantly.” This streaming video service is a freebie extra for anyone who subscribes to the company’s DVD-by-mail service (any plan over $8.99 per month offers unlimited streaming of content). Watch Instantly lets users browse through a library of 12,000 movies and television shows, much as they would surf channels on a cable box. It nicely combines the joy of serendipitous movie discovery that comes from watching HBO or Showtime with the impulse entertainment of video on demand."

At home, we use the PlayOn software ($30) with our Windows 7 Media Center (recently migrated from Windows Vista SP1) to watch Internet content on our TVs equipped with one of the most versitile set-top boxes I’ve ever owned: the Xbox 360. We can watch regular TV programming via the Media Center remotely on the Xbox, but also access content from Hulu, YouTube, Amazon VOD, and other sites.

For Netflix, we use the Xbox 360 as a Netflix Ready Device (included with Netflix and Xbox LIVE Gold): the player accessed via the Xbox Live service (although it’s also available with PlayOn if you have a Media Center PC serving your network). Xbox LIVE Gold members can download the Netflix application straight to your console and begin watching movies and TV shows instantly.

Another service list I like is the one offered via DVR. Through this page (which you can link to Facebook no less) you can "subscribe" to various favorite shows and watch full episodes via content distributor web sites when available. Essentially it’s a connector to various sites with pay and free content (via provides such as Amazon and Hulu, respectively).

The "My DVR" provides personalization features for’s popular Online Video Guide, launched in 2007, which indexes more than 700,000 TV episodes, music videos, movies and Web-only video content.  The feature also notifies users if there are new episodes of their favorite shows to watch.

We’re only a couple of years away from seeing how the predictions panned out in IBM’s report on "The end of TV as we know it." It provides their view on what the landscape in 2012 looks like across the industry for television programming, distribution and consumption. The authors interviewed a number of extensive interviews with analysts, pundits and execs from across a worldwide and industry-wide spectrum.

"Our analysis indicates that market evolution hinges on two key market drivers: openness of access channels and levels of consumer involvement with media. For the next 5-7 years, there will be change on both fronts – but not uniformly. The industry instead will be stamped by consumer bimodality, a coexistence of two types of users with disparate channel requirements. While one consumer segment remains passive in the living room, the other will force radical change in business models in a search for anytime, anywhere content through multiple channels."

This line has blurred with the Media Center now available on our TVs in the house. We’re still keeping Comcast for the time being as it provides the most seamless experience (with a single box) to access the channels we watch today (simple = high spousal adoption factor ;). But I fully expect that the integration of OTA and Internet available content within Windows will get easier, and will be simpler to access on all devices in the home via Digital Living Network Alliance Support (DLNA) devices as I noted here

I’m also happy to note the Digital Living Network Alliance Support (DLNA) in Windows 7. DLNA is consumer electronics industry consortium that promotes improved interoperability of digital content across networks, for sharing music, photos, and videos over multiple devices in, around and outside the home. Windows 7 implements several of the DLNA device roles and it also implements the DLNA protocols required for communications and media exchange. With Windows 7, your PC will be able to interoperate with a broad variety of DLNA certified devices like TVs, stereo systems, cell phones, DVRs, game consoles, etc.

Heck, with relatively inexpensive, multipurpose STBs like the Xbox 360 (no longer just a game device but truly an entertainment portal) and inexpensive yet powerful DLNA ready PCs with HDMI outputs, large hard drives (for digital video recording and network content cache) and consistent UI, it will only get better.


Tags: microsoft, dvr, akimbo, iptv, digital music, iTunes.

Clubhouse Tags: clubhouse, Challenge-Windows 7, media, Windows 7, video, HomeGroup, Play To

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Windows 7 available today, Kylie gets a new PC and other musings from GA-Day

Welcome to Windows 7 Release!

OK, now you have your copy of Microsoft Windows 7. First, check that your PC will run it with Upgrade Advisor And if you’ve got questions about Windows 7, look thru the posts from community experts on the Microsoft Answers site about Windows 7 (in 11 languages!) at

There was an awesome Kylie moment from the Windows 7 Launch today. She got a new Windows 7 mini notebook from none other that Steve Ballmer: Steve gave her very own pink Windows 7 laptop: (we <3 Kylie!). (Head nod to Mark Relph for the link, who I expect has interesting friends on his flights this week ;)  For your own new Windows 7 PC, check out the "7 days of Windows 7 savings" (quantities are limited and the program ends October 28, 2009)

I had fully intended today to attend the festivities on main campus at 5AM, and there was only one thing that could keep me from B37 and the NASDAQ opening this morning did: kids. Perhaps a remote feed to the house would’ve helped. Here’s a clip of the folks and friends in Building 37 today with Chris Liddell, our CFO, celebrates Windows 7 launch by ringing the NASDAQ opening bell remotely.


You can also check out the new social media "hub" to see what people are saying about Windows 7! via @brandonleblanc. And here’s a direct link to the new social media "hub" to see what people are saying about Windows 7


Here are a few top stories from Microsoft Presspass:

Microsoft Simplifies the PC With Windows 7, Oct. 22, 2009

New Retail Stores Connect Consumers With the Best of Microsoft, Oct. 22, 2009


Here are a few interesting Tweets from today (you can also find more in my twitter feed here).

@MicrosoftStore: Microsoft fans take over the Scottsdale mall. Long line, now people are wait outside the mall!

Dell’s Adamo XPS is an AMAZING ultra thin laptop. It’s sure to be on my Xmas list! More @ I saw from @dancosta that Dell Offers Sneak Peek of Adamo XPS. "I wouldn’t call it a hands-on, but I did touch it." #pcmlt  More info & links on the new ultra thin & very sexy Dell Adamo XPS via Bing

@LanceUlanoff Steve Ballmer: "95 out of 100 times, when people get to choose a PC, they choose a Windows PC" #win7 #QOTD

@LanceUlanoff Hands On with Amazon Kindle for the PC Nice app; smart idea for multi-touch systems.

Check out the new social media "hub" to see what people are saying about Windows 7! via @brandonleblanc

How to find Windows 7 Freebies: See "Where to Get Giveaways" by @PCWorld‘s JR Raphael

Reading Stuart Elliot’s article in the New York Times on "The Billion Designers of Windows 7"

As noted here, the venerable BBC News looks at the launch of Windows 7 w/ Microsoft’s Leila Martine

Wonder how did we got to Windows 7? AP offers this analysis of Vista + 1 = 7. No, you didn’t miss 5 & 6

All Black number 7 Richie McCaw helps Microsoft launch Windows 7 in Auckland’s Queen Elizabeth Square

I get lots of mail RE autographed Windows 7 PC & Zune for the Microsoft Giving Campaign

@engadget noted that Windows 7 Media Center upgraded Netflix "Watch Instantly" interface now available

From MSSpringboard, Podcast: Migrating Windows XP to Windows 7 Using Windows Easy Transfer and USMT

One more item for the Microsoft Giving Campaign: Adam Koford’s (aka @apelad) LOL Cats "Extra Leafy Edition"


Tags: articles, what I read, twitter, Microsoft, Windows 7.

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Do you have advice for President Obama on the 2009 digital television (DTV) transition? He’s listening…

Clip art from Microsoft Office OnlineAs I posted here, the House voted to delay the DTV transition today, which the President is likely to sign into legislation.

Now the Obama White House is fulfilling their promise to allow people to comment on new legislation, allowing a five day feedback period before President Obama signs the item. The first piece of legislation on the site? The revised and submitted DTV Delay Act.

Want to provide your comments?

Then go visit the new White House Briefing Room and click here to post your comment on the DTV Delay Act page on the White House site.

The DTV delay will move the transition date to digital broadcast to June 12, 2009.  Julian Sanchez noted in this post on arstechnica that…

"The DTV delay may have pushed the official national deadline for the transition to digital broadcast back to June 12, but there are plenty of broadcasters who don’t relish the added expense of maintaining both digital and analog signals for an extra four months. But thanks to a compromise provision inserted during drafting of the final version of the delay bill, they won’t have to wait: stations that want to go ahead and transition an early can, subject to a set of procedures released by the FCC today.

"For those who want to stay on course to transition on the original February 17 date, things are relatively simple, at least if they hustle a bit. Those stations have until Monday (yes, this Monday—four days) to notify the FCC of their plan to keep to the old deadline. Then they’ve got to run the "equivalent" of 30 days worth of viewer notifications for the following week—including a crawl, if feasible, and a heavy stream of PSAs, after which they can cease analog broadcast on the 17th."

More after the jump. 


Tags: Windows, Media Center, television, DVR, Obama, policy.

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My life as a customer: this week, it’s about cable television… and more than the 2009 DTV move

Customer satisfaction clip art from Microsoft Office OnlineMy life as a customer. This week, it’s cable television and the proposed digital television transition… not be confused with that other digital TV transition… as Tweeted today.

If you read my post about my email and Tweet exchanges with Comcast, you’ll recall that I wrote to register my complaint of having to add another set top box to my "already-ready-for-digital-TV" TVs: I have televisions that include a digital tuner, and capable of receiving the free to air digital channels, which Comcast rebroadcasts on their channel map.

Given the time to explain the situation and the less-than-basic response I received from the first tier email support folks (I appreciate the effort!), I sent an email last week to Steve Kipp.  He’s the regional VP for Communications at Comcast in the Seattle region.    

I sent Mr. Kipp a copy of my brief email exchange with Comcast’s customer service representative, with my request for more information about the status and availability of digital channels available in the clear (clearQAM).  In part, here’s what I received from Comcast:

In order to keep up with the demand for more HD channels, more programming options, and faster internet speeds, we must move out the analog signals. For every one analog channel, you can fit up to 10 standard digital definition channels or up to 3 HD channels. I apologize that you don’t think our efforts to assist customers through the digital migration is not enough.

Yep, I get that.  But they didn’t seem to understand my frustration or answer my question.

For our home, I’m happy to have Comcast phase out the analog and move the entire 1-99 channel map to digital, provided these channels that are currently provided in the clear are not encrypted (meaning, that Comcast customers need a set top box to decrypt the channels).

We have TVs at home with digital tuners that work just fine pulling in the few digital HD channels I get today from Comcast, and the remainder of the channels from 2 (local news) to 99 (which happens to be the CBC, thank you very much). Most of the channels we seem to enjoy most seem to be above Channel 29 including CNN, CNBC and various kid-friendly programming. Which means the capabilities in our new digital ready TVs will be redundant and – even worse – marginalize: it’s expected that the inexpensive boxes that Comcast intends to provide "for free" won’t provide the clarity or experience customers get today from digital HD provided via the cable connection today.

Back to my email to Mr. Kipp.

In my mail, I asked him just which channels will be available with a television equipped with a QAM tuner once Comcast pulls the switch to move more of the local channel map from analogue to digital. I explained that I hadn’t heard from anyone following my last email, I sent my email directly to him to register my dissatisfaction with the planned digital change on Comcast’s network…

I understand that Comcast intends to offer two STBs per HH for free which will no doubt be a cost to your company. In order to avoid some of this capex cost, it stands that you could offer the current analog channel map broadcast in the clear to your customers with digital and HD ready equipment capable of receiving clearQAM channels. It seems that this approach would allow Comcast to eventually migrate to an all-digital format, encouraged as more and more customers purchase new TVs and home AV equipment capable of viewing clearQAM. This would also highlight the benefits of an advanced STB, offering VOD, HD and DVR beyond the basic digital TV’s tuner. In fact, I would be inclined to add a new advanced STB on our main HD TV while allowing digital clearQAM channels on other TVs in our HH.

My objection is that contrary to Comcast’s advertising at the end of last calendar year, it seems that I will have to change our set up on our televisions at home and add simple STBs in order to view channels above channel 30. Surely, you can understand a customer’s frustration over this need to add a STB to nearly every TV in the home, and why instead I’m looking at ways to eliminate the need for such a STB and move (regress?) to an attic-mounted antenna distributing OTA ATSC to the digital-ready TVs in our home.

That was sent on January 26.

Yesterday, I received a letter dated the same day (Jan.26), noting that…

The Executive Customer Care Department for Comcast in the Seattle Market has received your blog regarding the analog migration. I have left messages to attempt to answer your questions. Due to no response received from you, Comcast will consider this matter resolved.

Hmmm. I received one phone message – which I really did appreciate – and attempted to call them back the following day (I left a message, as it seems they’re busy). But I find it interesting that in response to my original email, I received a letter and one phone message (again, truly appreciated)… but no email response.  And it appears that they waited less than a day before considering the matter resolved. Email much?

You might ask, why would I bother to escalate this?

In the Windows group at Microsoft, I often receive emails directly from customers or partners with questions or issues that haven’t been resolved.  Sometimes the emails or letters come to me via other managers and execs at the company, asking to route to the appropriate group for a response. You’d be surprised at the number and breadth of mail we receive from people, and we do our best to respond to these mails across the board. 

Building on that concept, I decided to escalate when it appeared that my emails to the general customer service inbox at Comcast had stalled.  I sent my emails as a customer of a service provider, unhappy with the proposed migration headache this move will likely cause in our home. 

I’ll let you know how this turns out.  I expect that unless a customer advocacy organization or some oversight committee steps in, we’ll be adding new, cheap set top boxes to all the TVs in our home once Comcast encrypts the channels we view today without a set top box.

Tags: Comcast, television, DVR, FCC, policy.

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