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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

City Life: RCN Goes All Digital ... Trouble Begins Already...

For RCN users in Chicago, soon you'll be able to have any kind of television you want ... as long as it is digital. Our condo association sent out notices about the change so we went ahead and ordered a couple converter boxes. One for the TV, one for the Mac Mini.

The last time I had digital cable was with Comcast and it was an absolute disaster. Channels would disappear, the quality was inconsistent and Comcast's final technical solution was "well, you could always just use the analog." At the time, it kinda annoyed me, but honestly didn't seem like that bad of a scenario when we got this place and couldn't get DirectTV.

Thing is, I'm an engineer and there's something about digital TV that bugs me. OK, there's something about converter boxes that bug, really, but here in the US that is one and the same. The converter box offers me nothing I really need. It solves no real problem that I had. Sure, it's nice to have a better looking picture ... but I wasn't really putting that in the "problem" category. Same goes for all the other features digital offers - VOD, channel guide, etc.

The problems it has already added, however, are pretty annoying. As I type this, for instance, I have no channels. I have a channel browser bar, which is sure nifty, but there's no actual corresponding image to go with that channel. Now an optimist would say that it is an impressively clear black, at least. I would say it just kind of sucks. My suspicion is that RCN, in their usual folksy low budget kind of way, has underestimated the level of demand that taking a major metro area into digital would have and that instead of taking the advertised ten minutes to download the needed feed - it might be a couple hours.

My other suspicion is that something went wacky with the activation. Can't really do anything about either one except look at a perfectly black screen and wait for. Six. Teen. Minutes.

The second annoyance is that the Mac Mini's main function lately is to serve as a DVR via Elgato's fine EyeTV product. Digital cable pretty much annihilates that because you can't change channels anymore without point the special remote control to the special converter box. That's the future for you - television in any room, stuck in a little box and let out when you ask it nicely. Perhaps in the far, far future we will have technology that will free television and allow a TV to access it easily. Perhaps we could call this space aged technology an antenna.

With crap like this, it is simply no wonder why people torrent stuff. Why wouldn't you? The only real downside is not getting to watch something when it airs. If you're willing to wait a day or so, though, you get a perfectly clear version of your show without commercial interruption. These days you can even grab in HD without much fuss except the extra time to download it.

And unlike digital cable ... torrents would actually fix a problem for me. That being my digital cable of course.

Now on the line with them. Apparently FCC rules forces them to use a security scenario more restrictive - and I do not exaggerate here - than my bank. Plus I had to spend about ten minutes reviewing my account information with them before even getting that point. This woman has an accent which is hard to place, but I would put it at something like southern screeching ... but it might be an eastern dialect.

I think Chicago offers a decent selection of over the air HD. That plasma is looking sweet yet.

OK, after reviewing my address (even though I'm calling about the cable box they just sent me) and asking if my cables were hooked up cables correctly (I asked her politely that if I had not hooked them up correctly if I could see the little channel bar ... ) and asking about my info channel (oh no, you said input channel) ... she finally just re-activated the converter and it mysteriously spurred to life minutes later.

This was exactly how my support calls with Comcast went. Deja vu all over again.

Update: ... all of my channels over 25? Gone. Just fscking gone. Hurrah for the future.


sterno said...

This reminds me of an amusing little fact. So you know how all the cable companies had all that wonderful digital cable. Then, at some point they decided to start offering you the internets? You know how they do this?


I shit you not. I heard about this from a friend who used to work on this stuff. They had a distribution network mpeg2 video streams. Rather than going through and gutting that, they figured out a way to bridge TCP/IP over MPEG2 streams.

And you wonder this stuff breaks :)

Josh said...

In talking to the two fine representatives from their tech support, I expect the entire thing to be run via some TRS-80's, some twine and one of those howling things from Harry Potter.

Mark said...

Just be glad its a smoking-gun kind of thing (no pic), you know what kind of help you would get for "random channels disappear every once in a while" or "there is snow in the channels above 100" just like with internet problems: "its down" has at least a reasonable chance of getting solved versus "I'm supposed to get 1.5mbps download speed and I only get 700k"

Josh said...

That being, of course, my fear for the future of my TV :)

It's just bad design. Adding this much potential failure for so little payoff. At this point I'll have to get HD just to have an excuse for the hassle...