Making in house HD Channels

For the longest time I have been looking for a modulator that would do HD signals. I have used the standard def modulators for probably a good 25+ years and always loved making my own “cable system” in the house with various channels for different things. However with the advent of HD TV, the SD modulators were just not going to cut it for a good HD picture.

In recent years I have had a security DVR that was outputting to a SD modulator that could be viewed on any TV in the house. While it was “ok”, I always wanted the HD version of it. So one night while I was thinking of running HDMI cables from the security dvr to every TV in the house, I stumbled on VeCOAX HD Modulators from Pro Video Instruments which are $495.

Previously when I had searched for HD modulators for either ATSC or QAM the only ones that were even sort of “cheap” where from a company called ZeeVee. However, they were still a little more expensive than what I was wanting to pay with the cheapest that I saw was like around $1,200USD. So I just put up with the SD modulators until I found the VeCOAX ones.

VeCOAX has a modulator called the MiniMod-2 which will take one HDMI source and put it on any ATSC or CATV QAM channel you would like. It supports any frequency in the normal TV/CATV bands and supports ATSC to mix with OTA channels or QAM to mix with CATV channels. It also supports PSIP so you can add a 4 character label to the channel and make the channel appear as any other channel. For example, I have my modulator on CATV Channel 14, but the PSIP says it is channel 1-1.

Initially I tried to use 1080p output, but all of my TV’s (2 Samsung’s and 1 Sony) had some issues. Either the input to the modulator from the security DVR was not a clean signal or the TV’s tuners just couldn’t handle it. So there was artifacts at the top of the screen and after a few hours or more the channel would just scramble and be un-viewable until I reset the modulator.

What I ended up having to do was set the source to be 720p and then set the modulator to attenuate the signal some since it was also over-powering the tuners in the TV’s. Once I did that, the signal has been stable for a few weeks or more now.

Now the next thing to test is hooking it or another one up to a TiVO to see if it can send the TiVO signal through out the house as well. Then I may also try to do some HAM Amateur TV with it since i can set the frequency to anything.

ReplayTV, TiVo and the general state of DVR’s

I currently have 5 (yes 5) DVR’s for recording shows. This goes back some years, but I have 3 ReplayTV DVR’s (2 with 80 gb Drives, and one with a 200 gb drive that I hacked to get it to work after the original 40 gb drive died in it.). They were / still are great DVR’s. They were pioneers in many ways compared to TiVo. They have built in network connections long before TiVo did. They allowed streaming of shows between units, years before TiVo could. All around they are great little Standard Definition DVR units. Granted they could only record what was on the analog tuner, however they supported multiple inputs so you could hook a cable box to them or other device and record it.

Up until late last year, 2 of them were connected to a Comcast cable box so I could record any channel that I received on the cable box. The third unit was connected just to the cable, so it could only record the analog channels. Well as with the “rest of the world” Comcast decided to drop all analog channels from their cable line up, in favor of the “better” digital signals. (Which they compressed to hell and back….) Anyways, this would have made the one DVR a door stop. However, Comcast decided to give away 2 free “Digital Tuning Adapters”. So I thought this would be cool, I could just hook it up and put it in front of the DVR and be able to record the channels. Well, the DTA required me to “hack” the ReplayTV unit as it (the ReplayTV) did not have the IR codes to control the DTA. This took me a better part of a day one weekend to get working. So at least it is able to record the basic/extended cable line up.

So fast forward half a year, and I turned on the ReplayTV one night to watch a recorded episode of Top Gear [because Comcast doesn’t have BBC in HD 🙁 ] and I see a message stating that:

Important Announcement!

The ReplayTV Electronic Programming Guide (EPG) Service will be permanently discontinued on July 31, 2011. After this date, owners of ReplayTV DVR units will still be able to manually record analog TV programs, but will not have the benefit of access to the interactive program guide. Effective immediately, monthly billing for the ReplayTV service to remaining customers has been suspended.

The industry conversion to HDTV is complete and ReplayTV DVRs are unable to take advantage of the wealth of HDTV programming. Please contact your service provider for current offerings.

What pissed me off the most was the last line: “The industry conversion to HDTV is complete….” Wait just a minute, there are hundreds of SD channels on Comcast’s lineup, that aren’t available in HD. So now all of the sudden I go from having 5 DVR’s to 2. Granted ComCRAP just raised my bill by another $16 a month, so the saving in the lost of paying the ReplayTV monthly fee makes my cable cost go down a little, but this still makes me mad as the ReplayTV DVR’s are still useful and very much liked by their user’s.

Well it appears that some people are trying to get a fix to allow them to continue to work after the July 31, 2011 cut off. One of the workarounds is by using WiRNS and Schedules Direct. Since I had previously set up a WiRNS system to hack the one DVR to get the IR codes in it, I decided that it wouldn’t be too hard to set it up on the new VMware server I have at the house since it didn’t require much processor and disk space. Also the Schedules Direct method only charged $20 a year for guide data vs the $23+ a month I was paying now for the ReplayTV units. (So almost a $260 a year possible savings.)

This is all cool, however there is one thing that hasn’t been figured out yet. That is how to handle the encrypted clock connection on the ReplayTV unit. If this can’t be figured out, then the 3 ReplayTV’s, basically become the VCR’s of the 90’s.

So on now to TiVo. I have had one of my TiVo’s for a year now, the other for about 6 months. Over all it is pretty good, but there were items that the ReplayTV made so much easier that I can’t do yet with the TiVo. For example, there is a Java application called DVArchive that I run on one of my servers that “talks” to all the ReplayTV units and shows me a list of what all shows are recorded on them, what upcoming shows will be recorded, lets me transfer shows from the ReplayTV to the local server and lets me schedule recordings from one web interface to go to the ReplayTV’s instantly. This isn’t available on the TiVo. Yeah I can go to TiVo’s site, but it is some what of a kludge to see the entire ToDo list across both TiVo’s. Also the scheduling is based on the TiVo polling the Internet vs the push of the recording to the ReplayTV.

One of the big things that was missing on the TiVo side was the ability to “stream” between the two TiVo units. This was one of the reasons why I went the ReplayTV route instead of the “mainstream” TiVo route. Yeah you could “transfer” recordings between the TiVo’s, but this could only be done IF the cable company did not set the Copy Protection flag, which nearly every HD and SD digital channel has this set except for the local OTA channels. In the long run, this meant that if I recorded a program on one TiVo I had to watch it on that TiVo, instead of “where I wanted to” like with the ReplayTV’s. Well as of yesterday, this seems to have changed. It appears that TiVo with their latest software update has enabled “Streaming” between the TiVo’s (like the ReplayTV’s had probably a good 7+ years ago). Now you don’t have to “copy” the entire program to the other TiVo to watch it, in addition the Copy Protection flag does not apply to the “streaming” of the video between the 2 TiVo units.

This is excellent news as now I can record a movie on one and then watch it on the other and vice verse with my weekly shows that get recorded.

So you are probably thinking if you are even reading this far, what the hell does this have to do with the “General state of DVR’s”? Well it just shows how some DVR’s are pioneers, some are the “popular” ones and then some are ones that people are just “stuck with”. What I mean by “just stuck with” is those people who are unlucky enough not to realize how good ReplayTV was, or how much functionality the TiVo Premiere’s have VS a “Cable company” DVR. Seeing how I have had all three now for a while, (although I did get rid of the ComCRAP DVR) I would still rate the ReplayTV as the best DVR that I have had. Granted it doesn’t do HD picture, but then again not everything on Comcast’s lineup is in HD. I still use them to record all my SD content and use the TiVo’s only for HD content.

Comcast’s DVR is just plain the worse thing I have ever seen. They only have a 160 gig HD in their HD-DVR which means that after a week of shows, it is usually out of space. Not to mention, there was NO way to schedule anything on it except scrolling through the on screen guide. There was no “searching” for items to tape. No way to save programs. No way to stream it to other units.. Think of it as the VCR of the 90’s with the VCR+ module added in.

Overall I think that DNNA made a bad move by discontinuing the ReplayTV EPG, but I guess in this day and age every one has to way the good vs the bad at some point.

WiRNS (the Windows Replay Network Server) URL: http://wirns.com/
DVarchive URL: http://dvarchive.org/
Schedules Direct URL: http://www.schedulesdirect.org/
ReplayTV announcement: http://www.digitalnetworksna.com/replaytv/

Comcast, TiVO and Frontier Communications

I have been a Comcast customer for a while now, and have not really had problems with their service until recently. It has all started with the switch to the “full digital” cable system. I had problems with their dta’s (here and here). Now I am having problems with their Billing department and cable card “services”.  Back in June I decided to get a TiVO to be an “hd tuner” for the bedroom HDTV. This is when the fiasco with their cable card started. I was told by Comcast reps online that the Cable Card was free, since it would be the first one on the account. This was awesome, till I got the bill and found out they were charging me for it. I talked to them again, and they removed the charge.

Well in November when I got the 2 dta’s, something happened and they started charging me $6.99 a month for the cable card, that was supposed to be free. So I contacted Comcast, and they said “sorry” and took the charge off. Well December rolled around and the charge was back. Since then I have been having a fight with Comcast over false advertising and the failure to properly document their prices in public view. It has gone back and forth about 11 times. Just recently they sent me the Morgantown Price sheet, which is not available any where online that I could find, so here it is Rate Card Morgantown. What they fail to tell you is that if you have ANY of their cable boxes (hd, sd, hd/dvr) you can NOT get a cable card for free, contrary to what I was told in June which lead to the decision to buy the TiVO. So now I am stuck paying $3.00 a month for a cable card. Which means my cable bill is now even more expensive than it was before. I am going to file an FCC complaint over all of this as well, to say that the order of “devices” dictates the price of the service is pure bull shit.

Then while I am bitching to them about the prices, it appears that either something changed on the TiVO side or the Comcast side and I started having problems with about 24 digital channels. When I would tune to say  BBC America, it would be normal for a couple of seconds and then freeze for a couple seconds, then be normal, ad nauseam. So I spent a couple of hours on a friday night clicking through all 250+ channels that I get. Out of them I found out which ones had the problems. I then went and mapped every channel to the QAM / RF channel it was allotted. And guess what they were all around the same general area. What is weird, was BBC America was one that I was having problems with, then all of the sudden they turned off The Weather Channel on the analog side, BBC America started working and The Weather Channel started having problems. For those interested, here is the list that I and some other people are having problems with:

I ended up calling Comcast to come out and replace the cable card, because I thought that was the problem. Well the guy showed up, and was not exactly the friendliest person I have met from Comcast. He seemed like it was a “stupid call”. So he started looking around and I showed him what was happening with the TiVO. He then said he would be back. When he came back in the house, he had some new cable and some tools. He proceeded to cut every end off of every cable in my bedroom and pull out all the cable and replace it with his “new” cable. Well that did not work. So he asked where the cable came in to the house. I took him to where every cable home run’s back to. He got so confused that I had to explain what was going on. It then seemed like he was pissed for some reason. Once again pulled out the snips and cut every end off of every cable and the put new ones on. Still didn’t fix the problem. So I asked if he had brought a cable card to replace the one in the TiVO. He hadn’t brought one. He left and went back to the local office and picked up a card and came out and replaced it. Well the channels are still messed up. So he said it had to be  the TiVO’s problem because the Comcast boxes “were working fine” and took off.

So now I was like hmm, this freaking sucks as I know the finger pointing game is going to start, but I got on TiVO’s chat and started talking to them. They had me reboot the TiVO a couple of times, but that did not fix any of the problems. He suggested that I call their phone support as they would have some better things to have me try. I did and they had me read off some signal levels and look at the “RS Uncorrected” and “RS Corrected” counters. He did not like the numbers on there and basicly said that it was a Comcast problem and the signal was dirty coming in to the house. But he also said he was going to go talk to some one else and call me back in an hour. An hour went by and he did call me back. This time he said he talked to some supervisors and they would like to replace my TiVO because they thought one of the tuners may be bad in it. He told me he would ship me a new TiVO since mine was only a few months old and that they would leave my current one active until I made the swap so that I could get all the shows off of my current one and on to the new one. I thought that is good, at least they aren’t like Comcast and just replace it and you lose everything.

Well today, I got stuck at home because of 3/4 inch of ice all of the driveway, and UPS showed up with the “new” TiVO. To my surprise it wasn’t new, it was a refurb. Not only that there were no cables in the box, so I could not power it on and the current one on at the same time to copy any thing over. This made me extremely pissed. Not only had they lied to me (the tech guy stressed more than once that he was going to make sure I got a new TiVO and not a refurb) but now I couldn’t even test it.

Well here is where the power of Social networking comes to help. One little bitch, and with in a couple of minutes some one from TiVO is asking for details. Then about 3 hours later, I got a call from the Executive relations people. He said he was sorry for the confusion and would be sending me a cable pack to get the current refurb one running. He also said that if the refurb that was sent did not work, he would send me a brand new one.

Fast forward about 40 minutes, and I was talking to Justin and found out that he is having problems on his TiVO with the exact same channels that I am. So now it is definitely a Comcast or TiVO problem and not a problem with my box, unless his which is a different model also developed the same problems at the same time.  Needless to say, I called the TiVo guy back and left a message that I think there is a bigger problem than just my box.

So you are probably thinking by now, if you have read this far, what the hell does this post have to do with Frontier Communications? Well not really anything, other than something weird happened last night and they are a “service provider” in the area, not that I am a client. I have not had a land line phone in the house since about October 2007 when I canceled the Verizon line in favor of using Packet 8 VOIP, which I have been using since June of 2004. Well I had left the phone in the kitchen hooked up to the old “Verizon” line even though it was dead. Don’t know why, just did. Well while I was putting memory in my laptop last night, the kitchen phone started ringing. It took me a minute to figure out what it was, because I hadn’t heard that phone ring in probably 4 years. I went in and picked it up and there was some one on the other side asking for some one who obviously doesn’t live here. After saying “sorry wrong number”, I hung up and then picked the phone up again. Freaking weird to hear a dial tone on it. So I called my self and my other phones rang. Now I had the phone number of this new “phantom” line. This was pretty weird. So I disconnected the phone from the line, as I didn’t want to hear it ring again if I had some one elses phone mapped to my house.

Once again a little Social networking and with in a few minutes I had a contact at Frontier Communications who was asking for information. I gave her the details and told her that the dial tone is a “weird” dial tone type. Needless to say I have not heard back from her yet, but last time I checked, the dial tone still exists, so I bet they are trying to figure out where the “wires” got crossed.  Some friends suggested I make some overseas calls, and some 900 number calls, or act like I am the people they are calling. But the weird part is the phone has not ringed at all today. So maybe they just assigned a phone to my house and the number is not assigned to any one and the other night was just a fluke?

All in all, I hope TiVO and Comcast get their system/signals worked out as it sucks to be paying such a high price for a service and not be able to use it completely.

Good news for DTV in Morgantown

It seems that the TV stations are finally realizing that their Digital Signal doesn’t cover what their analog signal used to.. The hopefully good news for those in Morgantown, WV is that KDKA is filing a petition to build a translator tower in Morgantown so we will be able to get channel 2 over the Air. They are planning on trying to put it on channel 31. The other good news is WPXI is filing a petition to build a translator tower in Uniontown PA what would be on channel 23.

Now if only WTAE, WPGH, WPMY and WPCW would put translators down close to Morgantown, we could finally get good service over the air.

Right now Morgantown, WV is considered in the Pittsburgh DMA, even though we are closer to the Clarksburg DMA. But right now you can’t receive hardly anything from either DMA’s and the only thing we are left with is WNPB which is PBS. So come on WPGH, WTAE, WPMY, and WPCW put some translators in Morgantown so we can get the coverage we used to have with your analog channels!