Going cableless… and back?

In a way, cable TV is very different here than what we were used to.

When we moved into the United States, we had Comcast installed in our temporary housing. And frankly, it was underperforming. Yes, they had a wide array of channels, and lots of on demand content being pushed onto the DVR, but the box was unusable UX-wise, and the quality was not “wow” And on top of that, the Internet really was a nightmare. It was frustrating to spend our first weeks here without any kind of working connectivity, particularly for telecommuting.

So, when we moved in we were considering not having cable TV at home. Specially after seeing how costs could easily rise up to $100/mo., which is what we spent in Ecuador, and not what we expected for North America. We hooked ourselves up to fiber with Frontier (FiOS) and bought a TV with a digital tuner. Then we got an antenna.

Thing is we live 20 miles out of the antenna towers, and the antenna could not pick up most local channels. So I returned the antenna and got a new one. No luck. And then another one. Nothing. It seemed like we’d need an external antenna, but the homeowners wouldn’t allow it or at least needed a significant amount of negotiation and planning (in the US, the FCC regulates how much can a homeowner prevent you from installing antennas for receiving public transmissions) which in a way also took satellite TV (which we’ve preferred for decades) out of the question.

So, with that chunky 25 Mbps fiber connection we joined Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Out of our analysis, Hulu was the less valuable service of all three. A lot of the content was either too old or too new and it was unpredictable for us to follow a show. Also, a lot of the shows were on the national networks (which are digital and free-to-air in the United States, meaning for example free HD episodes of The Big Bang Theory)

Netflix continues to be the best value for us. We get an incredible amount of content, including a very predictable path for us to catch up with shows (such as Parks and recreation) and the content is high quality, which is very different from Netflix in Latin America. And Amazon Prime was a good value just for the deals and free shipping so having some stuff free as Instant Video and the rest for low prices ($2, $3, etc.) is a good option. We use a Roku HD to consume all that content, as well as our Surface and Windows Phone now and then.

But we still couldn’t watch ABC, CBS, NBC, etc. We also couldn’t consume any content in Spanish (the free antenna carries Univision, with really poor programming, even worse than in Latin America in some aspects, and V-me) While Netflix had a channel for PBS (the Public TV system, which we love) watching newscasts was a problem as well. And don’t get me started on sports – not that we are huge fans of having all the MLB, NFL and NBA channels, but some baseball here and there and some European soccer wouldn’t hurt.

I was pretty much bought into adding Cable TV services from Frontier, until I realized that our apartment was plugged to 2 different cables. One for the Internet access, and one for… TV! Yes! Turns out the entire building is plugged in by default, and due to FCC regulations most cable operators must offer local TV channels with a technology called Clear QAM. So I tune in and remove the scrambled (encrypted) channels and I end up with 45 unique channels. All major networks are there, in HD, and I also get lots of additional programming (a lot of public TV, including the city and county TVs, the University of Washington TV channels, etc.) with a couple channels that come and go whenever the operator is trying to pull marketing stunts.

So for a couple months we’ve been able to balance our Internet TV experience with a regular TV experience. And we pay for it, but we pay significantly less than the $100+ that we would expect to pay for a lot of content we don’t use in a DVR we hate. But this will stop soon.

The reason is the FCC lifted some restrictions for the operators and they will start encrypting even the most basic TV channels. That’s part of the reason why the entire building was hooked up by default. They are rolling out the encryption now and soon we’ll be back to the Roku. Then, I’ll most likely sign up for Frontier’s Cable Services. I will let you know how it goes but, for now, it seems going cableless is just a matter of complementary, and not supplementary, experiences.


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