Posts Tagged ‘Comcast’

There’s More To The Story (There Always Is!)

A couple weeks ago, I posted a story about a particularly irritating problem I was having with my high-speed Comcast internet service dropping out. After lots of troubleshooting, I thought I had cornered the culprit – a Samsung-manufactured set-top box that Comcast was using for delivery basic Xfinity services (no DVR).

When I connected the cable TV input connection to a spectrum analyzer, I saw some pretty nasty burst of spectral noise that ranged from 11 MHz all the way up to 400 MHz. I figured this might have been the cause of the dropouts and promptly returned it to the local Comcast Store, only to find out that particular model wasn’t in use any more and that I’d have a much smaller, flatter version to take home – one that would link automatically to my main X1 DVR.

Coincidentally, the dropout problem stopped, so I did what any other reasonable person would do: I assumed that was the end of it.

Except it wasn’t. A few days after I replaced the box, the WAN connection started dropping out again. Some days it dropped only a couple of times, but on April 13, it dropped out almost fourteen times in four hours. Out came the test equipment (and plenty of expletives) as I started testing every line in the house, taking more and more things of-line.

At one point, the only thing connected to the Comcast drop was my wireless gateway and my spectrum analyzer, through a brand-new 2-way splitter good to 1.5 GHz. Sure enough, the WAN connection dropped again – but this time, I caught something on the analyzer I hadn’t seen before.

Figure 1. The entire system (two cable boxes and a wireless gateway) are working just fine with these signals.

Figure 1 shows the ‘normal’ levels of QAM carriers coming through the drop. There’s a little up-and-down there, but the entire system – in particular, the downstream QAM carriers above 650 MHz – all measured at least 32 dB above the noise floor (about -87 to -88 dBm). In this condition, the wireless gateway was chugging along just fine and broadband speeds were pretty fast.

Just ten minutes later – while I was watching the analyzer screen – the QAM carriers from 50 MHz through 400 MHz dropped precipitously, as seen in Figure 2. Right on schedule, the WAN connection stopped working! Yet, I hadn’t touched, changed, or re-wired anything. This was starting to look like a classic ghost in the machine, and likely an issue outside my house. (Yes, the Samsung box did need to be replaced in any case – it was quite dirty, RF-wise.)

Figure 2. Ten minutes later, KABOOM – the WAN connection dropped and my analyzer showed some nasty QAM waveforms below 400 MHz. What was causing this?

Well, after escalating this problem to Comcast’s Special Operations unit (yes Virginia, they do have Special Ops guys), I was visited by Jason Litton and Fredrick Finger of Comcast. I asked them to replace the DC block/ground block outside the house and also to sweep the underground cable coming back to the house. I had previously gone out to check the ground block and discovered (a) it was grounded – the wire had come loose) and (b) there was a tiny bit of play in the connections at either end, which I tightened up before they arrived.

Long story short; the block was eventually replaced, re-grounded, and new connectors were installed at either end of the underground drop. During testing, Jason spotted noise coming from a neighbor’s coaxial drop and proceeded to install several more new connectors. I also took the opportunity to have them put in two brand-new splitters in my basement (overkill, but what the heck) and run a new coaxial line to my workbench.

And that finally did the trick. Whatever phantom was haunting my system had finally been exorcised for good. Using Comcast’s brodband speed test to New Castle, Delaware and Secaucus, New Jersey, I saw wired LAN and 5 GHz 802.11ac download speeds hitting 100 MB/s. Using the popular TestMy.net server in Dallas, Texas; I measured download speeds around 30 – 48 Mb/s. Upload speeds to all servers were in the range of 10 – 12 Mb/s.

Figure 3. The final setup with all QAM levels where they should be!

 

Figure 4. Best of all, there’s no noise below 50 MHz on the upstream channels. FINALLY!

So what was the culprit? Most likely the cheapest thing in the system – the DC block. Noise from the Samsung STB didn’t help, and apparently neither did the noise coming from my neighbor’s cable drop. But the block probably had an intermittent connection and was creating some nasty standing waves, causing tilt on the lower QAM carriers and noise at the uplink frequencies around 30 MHz.

I’ll have more details on this unfortunate series of events during my RF/Wireless class at InfoComm in June. Until then, things are working well (knock on wood, or metal, or coax, or modem…)

Now You See It…Now You Don’t

A few years ago, readers may recall my on-going battles with Comcast to fix a service reliability issue. I had asked from the start that the ‘drop’ – the underground RG-6 coaxial cable running from the sidewalk to my house – be replaced. I suspected the cable’s jacket had been compromised with moisture over time.

Several visits from Comcast later (plus two modem upgrades), they finally did just that. Lo and behold, the underground cable had been spliced at some point with a barrel and simply covered with dirt  – no  insulating tape or waterproofing applied.

In the middle of all this fun and games, I received an offer from Comcast to upgrade to their X1 platform. That meant two new set-top boxes – one with a DVR function (not quite an accurate description, as the “DVR” is actually a cloud server), and one ‘basic’ box without DVR access.

So I went ahead and replaced everything. My network speeds had also gone up considerably along the way, and I also had a new 802.11ac channel bonding modem with 2.4 and 5 GHz WiFi connections. Life was good, right?

Well, it was – until last fall, when I started experiencing intermittent dropouts of my Internet service. They came and went randomly and could last as long as 15 minutes before service was restored.

“Here we go again!” I thought to myself as several rounds of diagnostics ensued. Was it the drop to the street? Nope, my spectrum analyzer showed a full spectrum of strong, level QAM carriers all the way up to 700 MHz. Was it a modem problem? I switched out the 802.11ac Arris modem I originally received as part of my upgraded street drop for a Technicolor model.

That didn’t solve anything, either. I looked at all of the coaxial lines running through my house and also checked out the Cat 6 cables I had run after we installed hardwood floors. Was it possible that energy was coupling from the bundle of category cables into the modem? Not likely, as that arrangement had been working well for over a year.

Hard at work, running new network and coaxial cables. (Did you know you can shoot vertical panoramas with a smartphone? I didn’t…)

Finally, I got a Comcast technician to stop by the house and we started sweeping all of the coaxial lines for noise. Lo and behold, the line that feeds my family room and master bedroom boxes had noise around 26-29 MHz, which could have affected the upstream signal from the modem.

Temporarily running an RG-6 cable directly from my X1 DVR to the noise meter showed a clean spectrum, so I got to work running a new cable connection back to the two-way splitter in my basement. After dressing the wires and reconnecting everything, I figured I was out of the woods.

Except I wasn’t. Not long after, the intermittent drop-out started again. In the middle of critical projects, I took to using my Samsung Galaxy as a temporary WiFi hot spot to wait out things out. I rebooted the modem numerous times and was at wit’s end.

Calls to Comcast revealed there weren’t any service outages. Was it RFI from the category cables, by some crazy chance? I replaced the bundle with a single piece of Cat 6 STP (shielded) wire – drains soldered at both ends – and installed an 8-port 1 Gb switch to feed all of my networked devices behind my family room TV.

That didn’t fix the problem.  ARRGGGH! What could it be? The noise HAD to be coming through the coaxial cable – but from where?

After pondering my next move, I decided to connect my spectrum analyzer to each coaxial cable run and look very carefully for noise and unwanted energy around 25 – 30 MHz. Connected to my X1 DVR, I saw nothing. It was as clean as a whistle.

The guilty party under test. A short piece of coax runs from the CABLE IN connector directly to my spectrum analyzer.

However, connected to my ‘basic’ X1 box in the bedroom, I saw the noise floor briefly jump from about -85 dBm to -80 dBm – and this was happening about every two seconds, as regular as a clock. Well, this looks promising! So I switched on “persistence” mode on the analyzer, which would allow whatever momentary spikes of energy to remain visible on screen.

What I saw next was jaw-dropping. High-energy spurious RF carriers dotted the spectrum, starting as low as 6 MHz and running all the way up past 50 MHz. Expanding my scan width to 100 MHz, I found even more of these little buggers – some of them as strong as -64 dBm. (For reference, the QAM carriers in my system are around -40 dBm.)

I expanded the upper limit of my spectral scan to 200, 300, and 400 MHz, only to find RF spikes everywhere. Yikes! I ran upstairs, unplugged the X1 ‘basic’ box, brought it down to my lab, and connected the CABLE IN port directly to the input of my spectrum analyzer.

These RF spikes were enough cause for alarm, so I expanded my spectrum scan.

 

Things were looking even worse at 100 MHz!

 

What a mess! And some of the spikes were only 20 dB down from my QAM carriers, like the one at about 300 MHz.

And there was the answer. The X1 box (manufactured by Samsung) had apparently been generating broadband RF interference every 2 seconds for several months, and it was coupling back through the RF input into my system. When my modem sent an upstream request to the Comcast server that happened to coincide with one of these “bursts” of RFI, the connection to the server was lost…and our Internet was out. DOH!

A trip to the Comcast “store” (that’s a generous description as it’s more like a crowded reception room) to return the offending box revealed that design isn’t used any more. Instead, a small (about 6” x 6”) flat terminal was exchanged for my RFI generator. This new STB had just four ports – power, HDMI, RF input, and USB – and now syncs as a slave to my X1 DVR, emulating all of its functions.

In the meantime, our Internet service is now as clean as a whistle and drop-out free. Once again, some thorough detective work and analytical thinking solved what had become a frustrating problem with no apparent resolution.

I’ll discuss this fun episode from my life in more detail during my RF and wireless class at InfoComm this coming June. Come on by, and learn more about troubleshooting RF interference problems in the real world! (And keep an eye on your cable box while you’re at it…)

Everything Old Is New Again: Goodbye To The VCR

This past summer, the Funai Corporation of Japan decided to stop manufacturing videocassette recorders (VCRs) after several decades, citing their inability to source parts as the reason.

What’s that you say? You didn’t even know anyone was STILL making VCRs in 2016?

A reporter for the Washington Post was referred to me by The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) for some pithy quotes about the demise of the VCR, which had its debut in the United States 40 years ago this past summer. Yes, the ½” videocassette format has been around for some time, with the most popular iteration being the VHS format developed by Japan Victor Corporation, better known as JVC.

Sony also had a ½” videocassette format for home use called Betamax, and in many ways, it was a better way to record and watch TVs shows along with movies. But Sony’s insistence at keeping Betamax a proprietary format (a la Apple with Mac OS and iOS) eventually doomed it.

In contrast, JVC licensed VHS to a long list of companies: Panasonic. Hitachi, Philips. RCA. Zenith. GE. Sharp. You name the CE company; they probably sold a VHS VCR at some point. And that had a lot to do with the success of the format, which soon migrated to consumer camcorders. There was even a short-lived digital version (D-VHS) for recording HD programs and playing back movies in HD, starting in the late 1990s. Blu-ray soon killed that off, though.

When you think about it, the VCR was really at the top (or bottom) of a family tree that leads directly to today’s streaming, on-demand video services. And here’s why – the VCR created the concept of time-shifting; recording a TV program so you could watch when you wanted to, not when CBS, ABC, or NBC said you could.

VCRs also gave us the ability to skip through commercials, pause, and rewind to watch a clip over and over again. Or the entire show, for that matter. After Hollywood lost the famous Sony vs. Universal Studios Supreme Court decision in early 1984 – which ruled that making recordings of TV shows for home viewing was considered “fair use” under copyright statutes – the floodgates opened.

Not long after, studios started making movies available on VHS and Betamax cassettes for sale. Enterprising individuals, noting the $90 and $100 price tags for movies on cassette, opened small video rental clubs. For having your credit card on file, you could rent a movie for $5 or $6, making sure to rewind it (or paying an extra fee) and returning it for another movie.

Hollywood studios weren’t happy with this turn of events until smarter heads realized the additional revenue stream could add millions to the bottom line. And so companies like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came into existence, happily raking in the cash as stacks of rental cassettes walked out the door every night.

The introduction of the DVD format almost 20 years ago (yes, it HAS been that long!) posed an immediate threat to the VHS format. (Betamax had long since folded its tent and left town.) Now, you didn’t need to rewind anything, and there was no annoying, blinking “12:00” indicator staring at you the entire time.

Bet of all, you could now jump through chapters of a movie by looking at I-frames. Fast forward, pause, and reverse were still available, but in theory, an optical disc would long outlast a VHS tape. It didn’t take long before video rental stores started replacing VHS tapes with DVDs, and by 2005, it was almost impossible to find a movie on VHS.

That was the first year that DVD sales began to decline, although rentals held their own for a few more years. Looming on the horizon were two new HD optical disc formats – HD DVD and Blu-ray – and Hollywood was giddy anticipating wheelbarrows of cash coming in. (True fact: The first Austin Powers movie was largely ignored at the box office and made most of its money through DVD rentals and purchases.)

But there was a fly in the ointment. About 7 years earlier, a company called TiVo unveiled something called the digital video recorder, or DVR. This gadget would let you record analog broadcast and cable TV programs to a hard drive – no tape or disc needed. TiVo sold a subscription program guide service, which is where they made most of their money. I had one of the first Philips-made TiVo units (14-hour capacity) and bought a lifetime subscription for $99 back in 1999, using a dial-up connection to refresh the program guide.

So now we could record a TV program, skip the commercials; fast-forward, pause and rewind, and simply delete the file when we were done. “Did you TiVo Letterman last night?” soon became water cooler talk. Along the way, we had obviated the need for any kind of recording media – tape or disc – in favor of solid-state storage.

A year after DVD sales started their decline, I bought one of TiVo’s first HD DVRs. It accepted CableCARDs, so it would work with Comcast. And it had dual DVRs (Wow!) so I could record two programs at once. It was big and noisy, but it served me well for 9 years.

Along the way, companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Dish Network, Verizon, and DirecTV came out with their own DVRs, some of which could record 4 or more shows at once. Now, you could record movies in high definition and watch them at your pleasure on your brand-new big-screen plasma or LCD TV.

And that brings us to the present day. Hollywood Video is long gone, and Blockbuster is bankrupt; its assets bought by Dish Network. The Blu-ray format, having vanquished HD DVD, isn’t the cash cow that Hollywood anticipated as more and more video and movies are watched via ever-faster streaming connections. DVD players – once selling for $1,000 – can be found for $19.99. And Blu-ray players with WiFi are widely available for about $50 – $70.

Netflix has now evolved into a streaming media monster, as has Amazon. YouTube, a pioneer in streaming shared videos, now offers a “red” premium tier, free of commercials. HBO and Showtime, along with ABC and CBS, have started subscription streaming services that can be purchased without a cable or satellite subscription. Episodic TV series are being produced for streaming channels and they’re not scrimping on production values.

So we’ve come full circle. My Comcast Xfinity set-top box is a DVR, but it streams channels from a cloud server, not from an internal hard drive. My contacts at Comcast tell me we’re not far from the day when there won’t be any set-top (or sidecar) receivers at all – your smart Ultra HDTV with WiFi will do all the heavy lifting. (After all, smart TVs are basically computers with big display screens these days.)

Today, you can go quite happily through life without having to wind a tape or load a disc in order to watch HDTV.  And that’s exactly the way things were forty years ago. Weird, right? Except you now have hundreds of channels to choose from; all of which can be streamed on-demand depending on the service you subscribe to.

Time-shifting. Commercial skipping. DVDs. Blu-ray. DVRs. Chapter searches. Video streaming. All of these grew directly out of that first VHS VCR that was sold 40 years ago.

And all you need to watch it is a smart TV and a remote. Everything old is indeed new again…

 

 

 

 

Cord-Cutting: A Slow And Steady Drip, Drip, Drip

An interesting study was just conducted by consulting firm cg42 and it claims that pay TV service providers stand to lose as much as $1 billion in revenue over the next 12 months. The reason? Cg42 says that as many as 800,000 customers are likely to ‘cut the cord’ in an attempt to save money on pay TV packages and bundles.

Cg42 surveyed 1,119 customers online this past summer and calculated that pay TV companies could lose as much as $1,248 per lost subscriber on an annual basis. In their survey, they found that the average pay TV subscriber spends about $187 per month for cable TV, phone, Internet access, and video streaming subscriptions.

In contrast, ‘cord nevers’ – people who have never subscribed to pay TV services – spend about $71 per month on broadband access and video streaming subscriptions. The streaming part of that amounts to as little as $15 per month.

Cg42’s survey revealed that both cord-cutters and cord-nevers don’t care much for traditional TV programming, and 83% of cord-cutters said they can access most or all of the content they want to watch without a pay TV subscription. (87% of cord-nevers said the same thing.)

Perhaps more ominous for companies like Comcast and Time Warner, the satisfaction of watching TV without paying for cable or satellite services increases the longer these viewers remain away from pay TV subscriptions.

The most popular streaming service is still Netflix, which 94% of respondents subscribe to.  And number 2? YouTube’s free video channels, which offer selected clips from late night talk shows and musical performances.

Surprisingly, many respondents get their sports fix by going to bars or restaurants to watch games. The survey didn’t mention how many people also watch sports on free over-the-air TV, which of course includes NFL games, selected baseball games and the World Series, the NHL playoffs, and the NBA playoffs, plus the Olympics, golf, tennis, and NASCAR/Indy Car racing.

Surveys like these aren’t anything new. We’ve seen analysts forecasting the end of traditional pay TV packages for several years now. However, there is a real concern about the cost of these monthly services, and whether they’re worth the price.

I’ve advised numerous folks on how to get free over-the-air television and supplement it with streaming services to save money – and in fact, later today, I’ll be visiting someone nearby to do an RF site survey and see how well he can receive the local Philadelphia stations at home (upward of 50 minor channels).

Couple that with broadband service and there’s no real reason to stay with pay TV, especially now that you can subscribe to HBO and Showtime online without a pay TV service.  You can also do without landline phone service if you have a mobile phone, further reducing your monthly expenditures.

I said this a few years ago in several columns: The future of cable TV is providing broadband service. Just like mobile phone companies charge you only for data (phone calls and messaging are basically free now), so will cable and satellite companies. They will look more like the electric company, charging you for however many gigabytes you used that month.

And how you use the data will be up to you: sending and receiving photos, streaming video, emails, and voice-over-IP. That’s the real future of Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Bright House, and other MSOs. The question is, have they accepted it yet?

By The Numbers – Or Maybe Not

Several news stories crossed my desk this morning that are each worth closer scrutiny. The first one comes from Reuters and says that Dish Network’s quarterly revenue missed forecasts as more customers disconnected their satellite antennas.

Dish stated that they had lost 23,000 subscribers on a net basis for the quarter ending September 30. In the same time period a year earlier, the net loss was 12,000 subs, almost half as many. And apparently the company’s new $20/month streaming service, Sling TV, isn’t proving to be as popular as expected.

The combination of DirecTV with AT&T also puts Dish at a competitive advantage, since AT&T can offer bundles of service (including mobile telephone) at competitive prices. Satellite TV has always been at a disadvantage to cable and fiber optic services due to issues with reception during inclement weather and the inability of some home and apartment sites to “see” the satellites, ruling out installations.

In my neighborhood, several folks canceled service from Comcast in recent years and picked up Dish and DirecTV as a cost-saving measure, only to drop both when Verizon laid fiber optic cables for FiOS and offered some low-cost, triple-play bundles that Dish and DirecTV couldn’t beat. (Internet service via satellite isn’t exactly fast and reliable.)

Right now, Dish’s most valuable asset is the UHF frequency spectrum acquired in FCC auctions- but it looks like that spectrum may go back for re-auction next February. And the DirecTV / AT&T juggernaut may force Dish into a merger to stay alive – or perhaps an outright sale.

So things aren’t looking too good for pay TV service providers? Not according to TDG Research. In a story on the Multichannel News site, TDG claims that “the percentage of adult broadband users (ADUs) who were moderately or highly likely to cancel their pay TV service in the next six months dropped 20% since last year.”

TDG went on to say that the group of consumers saying they “definitely will cancel” their pay TV service in the next six months has been cut in half — down from 2.9% in early 2014 to 1.4% in early 2015.” They cite the fact that Comcast only lost 48,000 video subscribers in Q3 2015, as opposed to 81,000 in the same quarter a year ago.

The problem with opinion surveys vs. market trends is that opinions can change abruptly. After a series of mishaps with Comcast’s Xfinity platform earlier this year (and well-documented on this site), I was about ready to throw in the towel and switch over to FiOS myself! But after my original complaint was resolved (replacing the buried cable from the drop to my house) and I wound up with a new modem (802.11ac 2.4/5 GHz), plus much faster Internet speeds and new Xfinity set-top boxes, I decided to stay with the devil I know – for now.

So the TDG data may reflect consumer preferences right now, but what will actually happen remains to be seen when the next set of quarterly data becomes available in January or February of next year.

There’s no arguing with numbers, however. From the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) comes a report that consumers spent more money on digital video downloads and video streaming through the first nine months of 2015 than on rentals and purchases of DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

According to a story on the TWICE Web site, consumers forked over almost $6.5 billion on downloaded and streamed videos. The “digital” category includes subscription streaming and video-on-demand (VOD), plus digital downloads such as movies to tablets and smartphones. (Like I do when I fly cross-country).

In contrast, the dollar amount spent on rentals and purchases of optical disc media amounted to $6.3 billion – close, but still in 2nd place. From January through September, revenue from downloads and streaming rose by almost 16% Y-Y, while revenue from DVD/BD purchases declined by 14% and disc rentals dropped 7.1%.

Within the streaming/downloads category, the lion’s share of revenue (3.65B, or 57%) went to subscription streaming, while digital downloads captured 21% or $1.34B. The rest went to subscription video-on-demand ($1.41B, or 22%).

What’s interesting is that in 2014, the DEG states that “consumers spent more on physical media, about $6.93 billion, compared with $7.53 billion spent on digital downloads and streaming.” Overall, that means that in 2014, consumers whipped out their credit cards to the tune of $14.46B, or about $1.2B per month. Through September of 2015, that number is $12.74B total, or $1.42B per month – an increase of about 15%.

So there you have it. Cord-cutting (or “dish dumping”) is on the rise. Or maybe it isn’t, if we are to believe the preferences of consumers. Or maybe it’s the HDMI cable we’re cutting, preferring to stream and download videos as opposed to playing them back from optical discs.

One statistic I wish the DEG would delve deeper into concerns the installed base of Blu-ray players – almost 80 million households own one now, according to DEG. But how often are they used for playing movies, as opposed to streaming movies and TV shows from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other services? We just don’t know.