Posts Tagged ‘Xfinity’

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…





xFinity: “The Future of Awesome” Is Looking A Bit Less Confusing…

In a previous post, I detailed the horror show I ran into trying to upgrade my old cable modem/router and migrating from a shopworn TiVo HD to two of Comcast’s new (Samsung) xFinity set-top boxes.

Those adventures took place w-a-y back in May and early June, and I won’t recap how everything turned into a three-ring circus. Instead, I will talk about the fact that since early June, I’ve lost (at one time or another) my Internet, TV channels, phone, and EVERYTHING. Yep, no signals at all.

There have been about six of these outages in all, and the one which cut off all service resulted in my waiting from 1 to 4 on a Friday afternoon for a tech who never showed up (apparently he went to the wrong address!). Ditto the following Monday, even though our service came back on its own.

Comcast has an “escalation” email address,, that seems to get you through to the right people when you’ve hit a wall. I had suspected that our service problems were more due to things happening outside the house, possibly at the street drop where our underground cable connects up.

After all, the cable was installed nearly 30 years ago, when the house was built. And even “non-contaminating” coaxial cables eventually go bad and let in moisture, shorting out along the way. So my repeated calls to Comcast customer service stressed that a tech should check the outside wiring.

After getting nowhere with this approach, and experiencing another drop-out of signals (as witnessed with my spectrum analyzer), I sent yet another “fix the damn connection!” email to Comcast. I finally got a call from the executive office confirming that a tech would be here today (although no one had previously called to tell me that, or ask when I’d be around).

The executive “escalation group” had also done some checking into service records and discovered (lo and behold) that other customers in my neighborhood had also experienced service outages. (More ammunition for my argument.) So it sounded like I was finally making headway.

A three-truck service call is definitely an

A three-truck service call is definitely an “escalation.” But it was about time!

The tech called and said he could be over in a jiffy – much earlier than expected. Great! Soon, one truck, then two trucks, then THREE trucks pulled up my street and parked. Wow, they really called out the cavalry!

In short order, the two techs and a supervisor opened the street drop, found a bad cable (it pulled right out of its connector) buried near the house, and ran a new waterproof coaxial cable to the street. They also installed a new junction box and ground wire, and ran a new cable into the basement where everything. The street splitter “rang out” okay.

Now, to the basement. The lead tech advised me that the “new” Arris 2.4 GHz DOCSIS 3.0 wireless modem/router I had installed back in late May (ironically, at Comcast’s suggestion) was actually an “older’ model. And that he had a newer, dual-band Cisco wireless router in the truck, and did I want to swap it out?


The “drop” with a rat’s nest of cables and taps. It was determined that an entirely new cable to the house was need. (Wow, what a surprise!)


The tech fastens the house cable while a supervisor installs a termination box and ground wire.

The tech fastens the house cable while a supervisor installs a termination box and ground wire.

Well, of course! In no time at all, the “older” new router was removed and replaced. After some phone calls to the head end to activate everything, I now had a dual band, 2.4 / 5 GHz modem with 802.11ac channel bonding capability. Given that I had recently gotten several teaser emails from Comcast, advising me that my Internet speeds had been upgraded to 75 Mb/s, I was quite happy to finally see that extra speed when all was said and done.

The good news is; both techs and the Comcast supervisor were “on the ball.” They hung around to make sure the modem and all phone lines were working, and also that I had reconfigured the wireless network names and new passwords correctly. (The Cisco modem has a quirky habit of re-booting every time you make even the slightest change to its settings.) It’s nice to work with people who listen to you, understand the problem, and work quickly to diagnose and repair as needed.

So – now, I finally have the new cable drop to the house I asked for multiple times. And even though I am working on my third wireless modem/router in three months, it is great to have the extra speed through the 5 GHz wireless connection (better than 50 Mb/s sustained). And I’m hoping that the service outages I’ve been plagued with are finally a thing of the past. (Knock on polypropylene.)

With that done and behind me, I’m now waiting for the “awesomeness” to set in…

Xfinity: The Future Of Confusion (Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Tried To get Along With Comcast)

It all started innocently enough a couple of weeks ago, when I started experiencing issues with Internet connectivity. And it turned into a circus of confusion.

First, some background: I’ve had Comcast service at my home address for close to 18 years now, and there have definitely been some ups and downs in my relationship with the company over the years.

At one time, I taught some classes on HDTV to installers and even salespeople at Comcast University. That was back in the day when HDTV was still largely a black art to everyone, and I had a good relationship with a lot of the technical people and even some engineers at “the Big C.” Those were the halcyon days of plasma TVs, big set-top boxes, rear-projection TVs with CableCARDs, and rudimentary Internet service. (Sorry, no voice over IP back then!)

Today, aside from an annual presentation to the local chapter of the Society of Cable and Telecommunication Engineers (SCTE), I don’t have any real contact with Comcast anymore. So if I am experiencing some strange service issues, there aren’t any shortcuts I can take to get to a knowledgeable technical support person.


Back to my problem: After trying to figure out why my modem seemed to be dropping connections, I placed a call to Comcast customer service. And got caught in automated voice hell. It took some time, but I finally got through to a live agent who informed me that my modem was “outdated” and that I should upgrade to a newer DOCSIS 3.0 model. Fair enough. She also said that an installer could come by and check everything (neglecting to tell me that there would be a $40 service charge for doing so). So I agreed to that, too.

The next day, said installer showed up with a new modem and went about getting it wired into place. He also took it upon himself to replace a two-way splitter I had installed near where the drop comes into my house (one leg goes to the modem, and the other to a 15 dB inline amplifier for driving multiple cable outlets). And then he proceeded to replace all of the associated connectors, saying that the splitter and connectors I had used were inadequate.

Now, I’m not a dummy, and I’m one of a handful of Comcast customers who has and knows how to use a spectrum analyzer. So, I connected said analyzer to one of the cable feeds from my amplifier and saw a nice, flat response for all QAM signals up to 800 MHz – above which no signals were present, even though the tech told me that Comcast uses that spectrum, too.

I showed this to the tech and assured him that all cable boxes would get plenty of signal (at least 40 dB S/N at each input) and that there was no noise in my system. Off he went on his merry way, and our Internet connection was one again perking along nicely.

This is what the Comcast QAM carrier levels looked like before their technician installed a new splitter and connectors in my basement. And this is what the same signals looked like AFTER the splitter/connector replacement.

This is what the Comcast QAM carrier levels looked like before their technician installed a new splitter and connectors in my basement. And this is what the same signals looked like AFTER the splitter/connector replacement.


So here’s where it starts to get weird. The next day, another brand-new modem shows up from UPS with a self-install kit. On top of that, I get several emails saying that I had updated my account and that I was also eligible for a “free” Xfinity upgrade. And of course, I clicked “yes.” Hey, it was free, right?

My current cable setup in my family room consisted of a vintage-2006 TiVo HD with a dual M CableCARD. Yes, it was a bit of a fossil, but it still worked like a champ. And for my upstairs bedroom, I had a Motorola RNG-110 set-top box. Simple, but effective.

When the Xfinity “free” upgrade kit showed up a couple of days later, I opened it to find two identical Samsung RNG150 Xfinity set-top boxes, along with self-install instructions. Okay, I can do this. So I took the boxes to my basement lab, where all of my test equipment resides. I pulled out my old Panasonic 42-inch plasma TV, hooked up a couple of HDMI cables, and attached a feed to the cable system.

The first box booted up, went through some machinations, and then displayed an error message. I was advised to pull the power plug, wait 10 seconds, and reconnect and try to initialize again. Sure enough; about 3 minutes later, I got the same message. And rebooted. And got the same message. And rebooted again.

After four tries, I put the first box aside and repeated the exercise with the second box. Same results! So I installed a two-way splitter on the line and hooked up my older RNG110 box to see if it was also having problems. Nope! Worked like a champ at the same time the Samsung boxes were failing.

In the meantime, my TiVo HD stopped working and brought up a message saying that it could no longer recognize the Western Digital expansion HDD I had connected to store more programs. And that it would not work at all unless that drive (which was still connected and powered up) was reconnected. Yikes! (And my wife says that at the same time, the TiVo master remote stopped working and she couldn’t turn the TV off.)

So I disconnected TiVo and rebooted it. That took some time, but eventually it did come back online. And I went back to my self-install exercise in my basement lab.

After trying a third time to get one of the two Samsung boxes to initialize, I gave up and went back upstairs to find that the TiVo HD had crashed again, displaying the same error message. Time to call tech support! (And get caught in automated voice response hell again.)

The Samsung RNG150 box (lower left) trying to make a connection to Comcast while the older Motorola RNG-110 box (lower right) is chirping along just fine.

The Samsung RNG150 box (lower left) trying to make a connection to Comcast while the older Motorola RNG-110 box (lower right) is chirping along just fine. (The caption should actually read, “Starting Up – This may take a few days and phone calls.”)


After being punted around to various departments the next day, I found someone who advised me to remove completely the TiVo system and my older RNG110 set-top box before attempting to initialize. Hey, why not – I’d already wasted several hours and an evening trying to get all of this stuff to work, right?

Finally, the two Samsung boxes initialized. Except that they were not receiving all of the channels for the package I subscribe to: Only free, off-air channels were coming through, along with those home shopping channel abominations. One again; back to the phone.

This round of calls put me through six different agents (including dedicated Xfinity tech support) and no one had a real answer as to why I wasn’t getting the channels I paid for, even though I could stream all of those same channels to my Samsung Galaxy tablet. A real head-scratcher!

Finally, the sixth agent told me that he would reload the required channels, one by one, into each box, and he advised me in the interests of my mental health to take some time off and get away from the TV and phone for the next half-hour while he was doing so. I decided to stop by the nearest Comcast Xfinity “store” to return my old box and M card, as it was a nice day for a drive.

The “store” turned out to be a rather dingy-looking local office and dispatch center, with a tiny waiting room, a counter, and three customer service agents. After dropping off the old equipment, I discovered that neither of the Samsung Xfinity cable boxes I had received had DVRs in them. Whoops! I had already disconnected my old TiVo DVR.

So one of the agents promptly brought out a brand-new “All Room DVR” to take care of that situation. More importantly, he apparently noticed something on my account that was the culprit behind my inability to watch channels I had paid for, and fixed it just like that. Hooray!


But that wasn’t the end of my problems. I logged into my online Xfinity account to check my statement, where I was notified that I had yet to activate my Internet service. (Some irony in that, eh?) Not only that, I now had a $40 charge for installation of the new modem – something I could have done myself, if I had been informed that (a) it would cost $40 and (b) that a new modem had been shipped to me for self-install anyway.

Finally, I received an email update today that my current charges had increased by a hundred dollars! Apparently, about the time the new Xfinity boxes showed up, the “special” deal on my cable bundle (which I had long forgotten about) had run out and that my monthly charge would increase by $30. (You’d think that with the blizzard of emails I was getting from Comcast that they’d have sent one alerting me to the expiration date. It would have been nice…)

So, it was back to the local Comcast Xfinity office to return an extra cable box. According to the email I received this morning, I now had five cable boxes activated. I also asked why my bill had gone up so much. One of the line items in the online statement read (and I kid you not), “Customer Discount,  $30.92.” So I got charged more as a discount?

Apparently that’s how Comcast tells you your promotional price ran out. They hit you with a $30 charge and call it “customer discount.” Nice, guys. Even better: I logged into my online Comcast account and my Internet service is still “awaiting activation.” (I’m not sure how that logical paradox plays out…) And, the $40 charge for the service call, which the CSR at the Comcast Xfinity store assured me was reversed, is still on my statement…for now.


So now, seven days later, I do have a working DOCSIS 3.0 modem with (supposedly) 25 Mb/s download speeds. I have a new splitter and shiny new connectors in my basement, none of which were necessary. I have a new Xfinity DVR that works (and streams HD video), and a satellite box in my bedroom. I am getting all of the channels I’m supposed to get, and my statement now shows that I have only two boxes – not five. (And I finally returned that superfluous modem.)

To get here, I’ve gone through almost a dozen different customer service reps on the phone and in person over a four-day period, including two tech support specialists – neither of whom could really help me much. As a result, I would advise Comcast customers to go to one of the Xfinity stores or service centers like I did, and deal with an “in the flesh” CSR – it’s a lot faster, and these folks were by far the most helpful of anyone I talked to. (Plus, and I hate to say it, they speak better English and were a lot sharper.)

In contrast, some of the phone CSRs seemed to stumble with relatively easy technical questions, and they wanted to spend more time reading from “the script” than letting me cut to the chase and try and solve the problem. It is amazing how much time you waste on the phone just navigating menus and trying to get past the automated “let me help you” voice. (Hint: Repeat the word “agent” several times to skip all of that nonsense!)

Aside from the cost of cable service today, I can understand why so many cord-cutters just reach their breaking point with cable companies and opt to stream 100% of their TV shows. Just connect a fast Internet port, fire up your Apple TV, Roku, or smart TV, and away you go. Even the new crop of off-air DTV receivers like Channel Master’s DVR+ and Mohu’s Channels is a lot easier to get up and running.

So we’ll stick with Xfinity for now as it does give us four DVRs instead of two, and is a definite improvement over the nearly 10-year-old TiVo HD in many ways. One catch, though: You can’t stream Netflix through any Comcast box, the reason for which I suppose should be obvious. So we’ll get our fix of “House of Cards” through either our Samsung smart TV, Samsung connected Blu-ray player, or stream directly to our tablets.

Isn’t television fun?