Broadcast TV over coax for free?
October 8, 2012 6:04 AM   Subscribe

Is broadcast TV supposed to come in over coax when you're not paying for it? (or is it not actually coming over coax in the first place?)

I'm a comcast/xfinity "internet-only" customer.
We used to pay for TV, but canceled it over a year ago, returned the box, etc. If it's relevant to the question, we have never had phone service through comcast.

I noticed, though, that if I plug coaxial cable from the wall into my (digital-tuner) TV, I am still able to get some channels. Basically anything you could get "over the air", plus a few other channels like Local Access.

Is this normal? Is it a "known secret" or a known non-secret? I can't seem to find a straight answer by googling.
Most answers seem to say "you need an antenna" or "you need to be paying for cable TV service" to get these channels without a cable box.

Now that I'm writing the whole thing out, I also wonder if the answer is more mundane:
Could it be that I'm getting these channels because the wire-to-the-wall is acting like a strong antenna, and they are actually coming over the air after all? The low-numbered channels (what you'd call "VHF" in the olden days) do seem to have stronger signals than the high-numbered ("UHF") channels.
If this is what's happening, is this an electrically bad idea? Should I immediately cease doing this and hook up a powered antenna instead?
posted by jozxyqk to Technology (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I believe Comcast delivers the must-carry local channels unscrambled. Since both internet and tv come in over the same cable, you are able to hook-up your tv and get these few stations, since your tv has a digital tuner.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:14 AM on October 8, 2012

Best answer: This is called ClearQAM. More here.
posted by dave*p at 6:15 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, depends on the local cableco - Time Warner installs (or intends to, anyway) a filter to eliminate the analog channel carriage for RoadRunner data-only customers. It depends on whether they send a truck out after your cable TV subscription lapses. Since they can do most of it remotely from the cable head, they usually don't add the filter until the next house visit. I presume Comcast is the same.
posted by Kyol at 6:17 AM on October 8, 2012

It looks like this is something Comcast is phasing out. See forum post here.
posted by beagle at 6:18 AM on October 8, 2012

Best answer: The FCC prohibits cable companies from encrypting limited/basic channels (unless they request a waiver, which would be granted only in certain circumstances, such as in areas where there is proof of rampant theft of services). The rule is here: 47 C.F.R. 76.630(a).

E.g., this is a feature, not a bug.
posted by devinemissk at 6:21 AM on October 8, 2012

Additionally, if you're in an apartment building, there may be an existing agreement to provide a basic service to the entire complex.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 7:16 AM on October 8, 2012

E.g., this is a feature, not a bug.

That is not exactly true. The fact that the stations are unencrypted and available to be seen without hardware from the cable company is mandated by the quoted rule, but the rule does not require cable companies to provide these services for free. As described by the other posters, the cable company is free to put a filter on your line preventing you from accessing the basic tier channels if you have not paid for them. The fact that they have not done so is, from the cable company's point of view, a bug. It requires a site visit, so it's a cost-benefit decision for them to make.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:23 AM on October 8, 2012

I'll come out even a little bit stronger. If you connect the coax to your TV and you are only paying for internet, I suspect the cable company would define this as theft of services. As described above the mandate is mostly related to set top boxes vs. in TV tuners for accessing local channels - not a universal access mandate to local channels.

That being said, the cost benefit from the cable company's perspective is to just ignore these issues most of the time - or to do a yearly audit where they do a truck roll to a neighborhood and check to make sure all of the correct filters are in place...
posted by NoDef at 8:47 AM on October 8, 2012

Another data point - we still had basic cable for about two weeks after we cancelled digital cable in favor of Netflix. Then one day I saw a Time Warner van on the street and a tech out on the pole, and no free basic cable after that.
posted by OHSnap at 8:52 AM on October 8, 2012

Response by poster: I'm not getting anything I'd classify as Basic Cable. Effectively just PBS and the 4 major networks and a couple of other broadcast channels that come in spottily (but a bit stronger than if I plug in one of those big flat powered indoor antennas). That being said, it is good to know that it's possibly something that would go away if they brought a truck around, and that I shouldn't count on it being available if I move.
posted by jozxyqk at 8:58 AM on October 8, 2012

I could be off-base, but I think that what you are describing is a result of the digital television transition, which is currently underway in the US. Congress has been pushing for switchover from analog to digital since 1996; many cities and metropolitan areas have already changed over.

For this last statement I can find no confirmation, but when I was reporting on this years ago I think I remember something in the NYC area where you could plug a cable coax into your digital television and access public channels that way, so long as the television was already equipped with a digital tuner. My understanding is that the cable companies might be required to provide access to basic television channels at least until the transition is complete, and to prevent any customers from being left unable to access the broadcast and public channels.
posted by brina at 9:59 AM on October 8, 2012

Effectively just PBS and the 4 major networks and a couple of other broadcast channels that come in spottily

That sounds like the Clear QAM channels, not "basic cable".

I know that the filters are on for us (because I was around when the cable guy did that after we returned the box) and the basic analogue cable channels (USA, TNT, FX, etc.) are very obviously scrambled, but most of the broadcast networks and a few others (Univision and C-SPAN and the civic/public access channels) are clear. We have a good enough antenna that we don't feel inclined to use them -- and TiVo doesn't support Clear QAM setups, which means there's no point adding a cable input -- but they're there.
posted by holgate at 10:04 AM on October 8, 2012

What the cable companies call "basic cable" is what you describe: local broadcast channels and public access. Comedy Central, despite what Jon Stewart says, is not basic cable. And yes, the reason why you can see these is because the cable company is too lazy to stop you. Cable companies are currently trying to make it easier to stop you from seeing those channels without paying.
posted by ckape at 1:25 PM on October 8, 2012

Are you sure this has anything at all to do with your cable situation?

I have no cable setup at all (I get my internet from Verizon, so no way there could be any confusion there), no coax going into the wall, nothing, and yet my newfangled high tech TV gets the big four, PBS, and a few local access channels. It's nothing that would be part of your average basic cable package. Just the sort of thing I used to get with bunny ears on my old CRT TV.

I'll also throw in that, once upon a time, I lived in an apartment where the previous tenants had cable installed, but I didn't personally have cable service. I was able to plug my TV into the cable outlet and get a similar array of channels (networks, PBS, weird local access stuff, and a few basic cable channels that at the time were not prime real estate). That said, this was 12 years ago, before basic cable carried the market share they do today.
posted by Sara C. at 1:38 PM on October 8, 2012

They may come around at some point and put a filter on your cable line that blocks the TV channels. I had this happen once with Time Warner Cable when I was signing up for internet. The reps were insisting that installation would require a truck roll to hook up my cable, which would take two weeks. I plugged the coax into a nearby TV and got basic channels, confirming that the line was hooked up. The highly skeptical rep gave me a cable modem to self-install, but said someone from "signal security" would have to come out and install a filter to make sure we didn't get any TV we weren't paying for.
posted by zachlipton at 2:04 PM on October 8, 2012

Response by poster: An unfortunate timely followup :/ Better get out the antenna.
posted by jozxyqk at 2:48 PM on October 15, 2012

The FCC prohibits allows cable companies from encrypting limited/basic channels

Sigh. Well, what is the FCC for if not to protect the interests of the broadcasters.
posted by alms at 5:40 PM on October 15, 2012

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