ClearQAM - What It Is And Why It Matters

There are millions of homes and apartments around the country that have a TV connected to a cable but have no set-top box and no video service from their local cable provider. These TV viewers either moved into a home or apartment where the previous owner had cable and the wire was still lying around. Or they are getting their broadband Internet over cable. Either way, when you connect a cable directly to most modern TVs, you can get the broadcast channels in HD without a set top box. And in doing this, you are not breaking any laws. This is perfectly legal.

The technology behind this is called ClearQAM. QAM is a modulation scheme that allows the transmission of digital TV channels on an analog RF cable. Because of a number of rules and regulations, cable televesion companies are required to provide access to the broadcast channels in the clear – thus the name ClearQAM. This whole thing is outlined pretty well in this Engadget post from a few years ago.

There are other ways to get the broadcast channels without a set-top box. You can put up an antenna and pull down them over the air for free. But for many locations, the cable is a better way to get the broadcast channels reliably.

Why am I telling all of you this? Because the cable industry is currently lobbying the FCC for a rulemaking that would allow them to encrypt QAM and shut down this whole bypass mechanism causing millions of TVs to go dark. And there aren’t many voices out there opposing this rulemaking request. Our portfolio company Boxee‘s is one of the few that has spoken out. Their presentation to the FCC on this matter is online and is worth a quick read.

Getting rid of QAM isn’t a bad idea in the long run. But encrypting the broadcast channels is not the best way to do that. Putting direct IP access to the broadcast channels on the cables is a much better approach.

It has always been the policy of our government that the broadcast channels are meant to be freely available over the air and by other means. There is no reason to change this policy now just because the cable companies want every home and apartment to have one of their set-top boxes and a paying subscription from them.

If you would like to reach out to the FCC and let them know what you think of this proposed rulemaking, you can do that here.


Comments (Archived):

  1. Rohan

    Seems/feel like a fight against one lobby.Then another.And then another.#electionseason?

    1. William Mougayar

      That’s normal Rohan. Washington is full of lobbyists. Just walk into the lobby of any business building there and look at the directory listings.

  2. William Mougayar

    “Putting direct IP access to the broadcast channels” is a great idea. I want it now. But how would that affect Boxee & AppleTV & GoogleTV?CONVERGENCE is unstoppable. 

    1. fredwilson

      it helps them enormously because then they don’t have to hack QAM to get to it

      1. William Mougayar

        Got it. Thanks.

  3. JimHirshfield

    Cable companies have been reading the RIAA/MPAA Playbook, I see.If business isn’t going so well, they want to change the rules. Even my 7 year old knows this isn’t right.We need more competition and innovation, less regulation manipulation.

    1. William Mougayar

      Lobbying should become illegal. It’s a distortion of facts.

      1. Elia Freedman

        We will need a constitutional amendment for that.

        1. ShanaC

          Unlikely to pass too,  You and I have vested interests.  The federalist papers mentions that people have vested interests.  (look, its ok to have vested interests, otherwise we wouldn’t need politicians in the first place)

      2. Cam MacRae

        Lobbying of the brown paper bag form should be illegal (or be subject to vigorous regulation), but lobbying of the robust exchange of ideas form should not.

      3. RocketSpace

        Agree, it is simply bribery under a different name.

      4. Dave Pinsen

        As I think @andyswan:disqus has pointed out, as long as the federal government has the power to allocate trillions of dollars every year, people are going to try to influence where some of that money gets spent. If you made lobbying illegal, it wouldn’t stop that, because the amounts of money at stake are so huge. If you want less lobbying, less corruption, and less crony capitalism, you need less government spending.

        1. William Mougayar

          I was being too idealistic, I agree. But reducing it would be a good start.

      5. Brandon Burns

        gah! how can you say that?! how will people be able to have influence on their government officials?!!!i agree the lobbying process is awful, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water!

        1. William Mougayar

          I wasn’t referring to their electorate,- rather this is aimed at organized lobbies which can derail the intentions and promises that politicians have and make.

    2. Otto

      “We need more competition and innovation.”I thought it was the FCCs job to ensure a competitive market, not protect cable TV companies and their local monopolies. I think we need another clever hashtag like #blackoutsopa, get the word to the millions of cordcutters out there.

  4. Alan Minor

    Fred, I just read the Boxee presentation that you linked. There were quite a few portions of text that were hard to read because the font color blended in with the slide background. I see this is hosted on the FCC’s site. Was the original presentation the same way?

    1. fredwilson

      they redacted some stuff about their product roadmap.maybe that is what you saw

        1. fredwilson

          hmm. i will check that out.

        2. LE

          Saw the same thing. I had to select the text and paste it to a textedit document to read those “brown” parts.

  5. Jon Smirl

    Fighting to preserve ClearQAM is titling against a windmill.  Back AllVId instead.Meanwhile your only reasonable alternative is to build a cable card server like Ceton is building. Look at this demo video of the Ceton device. That box can be produced for around $100 cost.…The front end device can be the size of a $25 Raspberry PI. In fact you can build the front end using a Raspberry PI but you need to add wifi ($3), IR ($0.50), and power supply ($3). Wifi is sufficient for carrying these signals since you transmit the undecoded MPEG streams, not the HDMI signal. So just ignore FCC AllVid and build it yourself.

    1. Jon Smirl

      Payback for switching to a system like this is two years at most. I am paying $40/mth for a DVR and two boxes. That’s $960 over two years. If I buy a Ceton server and front end units I only have to pay $2/mth to rent the cable card. That equation is why cable is fighting AllVid.

    2. Jon Smirl

      Front end device can be in this form factor.…Forget about IR and use the new RF4CE radio remotes. Now the device can hide behind the TV.  USB jack is used to get power. These devices are smaller than a business card and can be hidden behind a wall mounted set.

    3. Rob Pegoraro

      Boxee itself said they could live with trading ClearQAM for an FCC rulemaking on AllVid, as does my client CEA (where I blogged about this on Tuesday:…. The cable companies don’t want AllVid either, and so far this would-be standard–it would apply not just to cable but also satellite and fiber multichannel systems–hasn’t gotten past the study/planning phase.

      1. Jon Smirl

        CEA could take AllVid out of cable/FCC’s hands by building a standardized version of the Ceton Cablecard server. Specify an encryption standard between the server and STB that is open and that will remove the Microsoft lock-in. Open encryption would allow each piece to use any OS.Once the Cablecard version works I’m sure a satellite version would soon follow.Please do this. I will buy a system as soon as they ship.

  6. Cam MacRae

    You’re well on the way to enjoying the privileges we enjoy here: exorbitant STU rental and the inability to (legally) use your subscription card in any third party device (part 2 of their evil plan, mark my words).

  7. ShanaC

    I hate to reframe the argument in this way but:Shouldn’t we all be pushing for that spectrum to be reallocated towards mobile broadband services.  SHouldn’t we leave the idea of a pipe or an antenna passively delivering us content behind.I mean, if we see the world that way, then maybe it doesn’t matter if cable companies encrypt.  Just a sign of their own doom 🙂

    1. ErikSchwartz

      It does not scale. Not given the volume of programming in hours per day americans consume.

  8. Aviah Laor

    Sail on, sail on, oh mighty ship of regulation

  9. ErikSchwartz

    “that the broadcast channels are meant to be freely available over the air”Totally agree. The airwaves are public property.” and by other means”Disagree. If the cable company goes and disconnects you at the pole I assume you don’t have a problem with that.

    1. fredwilson

      the whole reason they are lobbying the FCC is they don’t want to pay for the truck rolls to do that.

      1. ErikSchwartz

        Right.If they need to do the truck rolls the price of cable goes up.

  10. SD

    This is utterly insane. Why should cable be forced to allow unencrypted anything? They are paying broadcasters for the rights to retransmit the signal. End of story.

    1. fredwilson

      it is the law of the landbroadcast channels have always been freethey are free over the airthey should be free on cable too

      1. Jon Smirl

        That’s not true. Cable companies are forced to pay for retransmission rights for the local broadcast stations.

        1. fredwilson

          free to viewerswhat goes on between the broadcasters and the cable companies is their own business

          1. Jon Smirl

            Why should cable companies be forced to offer something for free that they are being made to pay to acquire?

          2. fredwilson

            the whole retrans fee discussion is nuts. i have no idea why the cable companies agreed to pay for something that is free over the air.

          3. fredwilson

            thanks for that wikipedia link. it didn’t provide as much detail as i’d like. i’m curious if the retrans fees are per subscriber. if so, they are not paying for those who are getting broadcast over clearQAM

          4. Jon Smirl

            AFAIK the retransmission agreements are not public.

          5. Jon Smirl

            One of the reasons they are not public is because the broadcasters charge different fees to different cable systems. There has been litigation where the local broadcaster was charging a small cable system 20x more per subscriber than what a large system was paying.

          6. another cultural landslide

            Because they all operate under charters that requires they pass-though local signals. They agreed to those terms. That’s why.

          7. WiWavelength

            You need to clarify the difference between “must carry” and “retransmission consent.”If the broadcast TV station elects “must carry,” then the cable system must carry the broadcaster’s signal, and the broadcaster cannot impose a retransmission fee upon the cable system.If the broadcast TV station elects “retransmission consent,” then the cable system does not have to carry the broadcaster’s signal, but both can enter negotiations for the cable system to retransmit the broadcaster’s signal.AJ

          8. Gregg Smith

            Fred: Can’t reply directly to your question below, but cable MSOs don’t pay retransmission fees for “non-subscribers” accessing broadcast channels via QAM.In addition, we “agreed” to pay for free, over the air broadcast because we don’t have a choice. We can’t turn off one ABC station in an MSA for another in a different MSA (we overlap). No competition among broadcast content providers is legislated. We pass those costs as broadcast surcharges directly to our subscribers (with no markup) and in total, for 6 broadcast stations, we charge a little under $5 per sub per month.We are very interested in the coming litigation around the Aereo model…

  11. gregorylent

    buggy whip makers all reincarnated as entertainment broadcast execs

  12. Christian Peel

    Thanks for the article, I thought it was useful. I guess it is just wireless or communications engineers who will notice this, so it is a minor point:  I think your use of ‘QAM’ is too simple and confusing.  LTE and WiMAX use QAM, as do many other non-cable systems, wireless or wired.  So it is a little weird to read   “Getting rid of QAM isn’t a bad idea in the long run.”    That’s like suggesting that English should switch from using the Latin alphabet to the Cyrillic.   If you really meant ‘ClearQAM’, then please say that instead.

    1. fredwilson

      i will address that later. i’m not near a computer right now. thanks for the feedback

    2. Jeremy Walkuski

      It’s also important to note that almost all of the digital content flowing over a cable system uses QAM, including Internet service.

  13. Startuphound

    I hope this doesn’t pass. I am really looking forward to what boxee will be able to offer in the future.

  14. dh labs

    when comcast starting encrypting they forced customers to get DTAs eventhough they have perfectly good QAM tuners in their TVs. those DTAs use ~10 watts of power each.  how many millions of DTAs did comcast deploy?  40 million?  400 million watts of power wasted 24×7.  what a waste.

    1. fredwilson


  15. jason wright

    Americans should watch less television.

    1. Maigonis

      And do what? Anyway it’s world wide problem. 

      1. jason wright

        “And do what?”What is there not to do?

    2. another cultural landslide


    3. Richard

      Right on! The way i see it, It was and is child endangerment.

    4. William Mougayar

      I’d like to see the TV become more about streaming what I want from the Internet, and less about being subjected to their programming.

      1. jason wright

        Yes William, I fully agree.Traditional television is a form of fascism.

  16. Richard

    Iptv is the answer. There are more iptv subscribers in china than in the US. Forget broadcasting …. Smartcasting is coming.

  17. another cultural landslide

    We may be musicians, but my day job is television technology – and this whole issue gets me hotter than a habanero. The people who will get hurt the most by encryption? People who can’t afford cable – but rely on it PER FCC REGULATIONS; regulations set up to make sure that the public is served for information – especially emergency information. Cable companies constantly try to skirt this section of the law by telling subscribers they need special HD set-top boxes (which are then changed for, with a credit-card required to guarantee return of the box, making matter worse for people who can’t get credit), when in fact the law DEMANDS that these signals pass-through, without means-interruptions (i.e., cable cards or set-top boxes).It is all well & good to advocate AllVid, and newer tech – but that means squat to people who don’t have two nickels to rub together & have a difficult time getting a clear broadcast signal – especially since the digital transmission transition (which has wreaked havoc on clear broadcast range due to the issues of VHS/digital transmission problems, bit-error issues, and crappy box converters).(Oh, and live in a rural area sometime – and see how well digital broadcast works for home reception.)The issues of retrans, or how encryption will open up more bandwidth (oh, c’mon!) are straw men:  the only reason for encryption is to gird up revenues lost by cord-cutting. Whether Boxee is helped by this current regulation is secondary – the regulation is there to augment the Communications Act of 1934, which maintains that the “airwaves” belong to the people of the US. It may be built on antiquated technology – but it’s all that some people have.Yeah, I get hot about this. That’s because I care more about people than profits. Cable companies operate under specific charters. They need to live up to those charters, regardless of how it affects their bottom line. P.S. I’m no big fan of broadcast TV, either – but I’ll save that issue for another time. 😉

    1. Richard

      I don’t see the connection of caring for people and providing tv? The days of tv being necessary for survival have past. Moreover, Public airways seems like a fiction to me. That said, of couse the cable companies should not be permitted to scramble these signals.

      1. another cultural landslide

        It all depends on where you live – as tech-wise as we are on this forum, you’d be startled by what might find in the South, or the Midwest.And any time you wonder if public airwaves are a fiction, just walk into a station & ask to see their public folder. Even better, complain about a lack of closed-captioning on a program. It’s amazing how fast people will move to address your needs…

        1. Richard

          I am not out of touch with the plight of the poor. But what does broadcast tv do to alleviate poverty? How do we reconcile that  these so called public airways are at the root of the most expensive and expansive political industrial complex the world has ever seen?

          1. another cultural landslide

            Rich, in no way do I want to imply that you’re out of touch with the plight of the poor; not do I think that the massive consolidation that has placed control of 85% of all media & content into the hands of 6 major corporations will do anything but make things much worse.I’m just saying that when it comes to certain sectors of society – the elderly; the poor; rural America, and others – this is all they’ve got. This is sad – and to the degree that they are receiving specifically filtered information, horrifying.Let’s be honest: local radio & television broadcasting became a smokestack industry of the 21st Century the minute the 1996 Telecom Reform bill became law. The rapid consolidation and cost-cutting that followed guaranteed an ever-devolving stream of mediocrity, as they chose focus groups over innovation, and   justifying their model as the right one in the face of evidence showing a declining audience.And they still have no clue – as evidenced by the station chains all believing (and they do, like a religion) that Mobile TV – turning your phone into a Sony Video Watchman – will save their industry. Rather than adapt their models & change their products for the way people gather information today, they think they can just slap the same old shit on a phone & that will make everything All Better.So, yes – I’m horrified that people actually watch Kathie Lee Gifford and think it’s News (and not some sort of torture akin to bamboo shoots under fingernails); and I’m disgusted that some people take what they see on television news as factual information. But who are we to take that away from them?And local television does still provide a service – for example, we’re under a tornado watch right now, and even though you & I would immediately go to the NOAA for updated radar and information, the majority of people still turn on their tube and watch endless coverage of weatherpeople pointing at the radar in front of a green screen. And then they willl take cover before the shit hits them. This is still a service that local TV provides to those who have yet to make the jump to newer, better technologies.And to be honest, most of them never will make that jump. They have enough trouble using the tools they already have.People actually do have power to make a change in their local broadcasting – they’ve always had that power in their hands, but no one has ever mobilized them to take it. Stations live in fear of license renewals – that someone will stand up at a public meeting & say “You’re not serving our community.” But in encrypting data that requires an audience to purchase a device to get something that already belongs to them for free only takes them one further step away from having ownership over that system.And even if they choose not to do anything about it, that’s just plain wrong. And that’s all I’m saying.And now I’ll shut up. 😉

          2. Richard

            See my comments to Mr. Monster Grimlock (In a nutshell, subsidize education not entertainment), Sorry i just dont buy the News Reported Standing in the Snow Storm with a ruler as essential to Life. Radio could handle this.

          3. FAKE GRIMLOCK


          4. Richard

            Double the number of Libraries. There are 17,000 public libraries in the US.  New York State spends about 700K /yr per  library a year to keep its 1000 librariesopen. So working off of the highest overhead system in the country,   all 17,000 public libraries requireabout  $1.2 billion a year. Total US Drug Sales in 220 Billion/yr Total  US RestaurantSales in  650 Billion/yr TV Adverting Revenue 70 Billion/yr TAX  each at 1/10 of1%  and you double the  budget. Or take the top 100 million earners in the US and as each todonate $10/yr. And with all this the Federal Govt already spends >45billion a year on education. And we spent > 6 billon in the last election cycle.

          5. jason wright

            Perhaps Fred would invest in a book exchange idea? Two people each have a book that the other has an interest in reading, they meet up in a public place within traveling range and do the exchange.There are a lot of books out there waiting to be read by someone new.    

    2. fredwilson

      nice rant!!!! i love it.

    3. Brandon Burns

      the FCC regulation to give everyone, including those who can’t afford cable, access to broadcast for information purposes is best counter-argument i’ve heard against the cable industry on this matter. thanks for bringing it up — it helps strengthen the position of this post.  

  18. kidmercury

    the american government is in the process of collapsing. trying to get what you want by sending letters to congress is a game that has very low profit margins — a trend i doubt will be reversed. it’s time to start building what comes next. 

    1. RocketSpace

      Agreed, costing more and more and delivering less and less. All ecosystems need a means to self correct. The Government should fill that purpose. But the Government has been hijacked by big business, unions and the 1% who are now stopping the correction. Something has to break.

  19. Otto

    Boxee Box is what the cable box should have been years ago, just without the exorbitant monthly fees and declining standards. I love mine and the Live TV tuner is a far better broadcast digital TV experience than what I was getting from my Comcast box.Question on ClearQAM… right now I just have a limited basic cable subscription, it’s around $10/mo and it basically just delivers the basic broadcast channels because I’m in a antenna dead zone. My question is… now that I have the Boxee Box Live TV tuner and plug the cable into it, do I still need the limited basic cable subscription?

    1. fredwilson

      not until they encrypt the QAM

  20. SMPTE

    Cable companies have extremely capital and operational intensive businesses. You can’t take issue with the rising cost of cable and in the same breath complain about their very real ability to eliminate expense (truck rolls). Encrypting clear QAM is a move toward a software based operational model, the type of model that underpins Boxee as a business. I hate that it causes pain for the subscribers of cable in the form of an additional set top, but they are exactly that…. subscribers. With choices.The misnomer that cable companies are out to jack revenue via set top fees is a laugh, given that set tops drag their margin considerably. ARPU is only metric on which they are judged by Wall Street. Every cable operator out there is very actively looking for ways to eliminate set top expense, and technologies like IP, Apps, and platforms are all part of the equation. Doing it in a brownfield for 110M homes is a much harder problem set than the one Boxee has to solve.Your premise that ClearQAM should be ‘free’ over cable is nonsense, and undermines your (Boxees) argument. There is no mandate for cable to provide service to non-subscribers in any fashion – in that case it’s back to the good old days of OTA and antenna. Just because it’s cheaper in many respects for an operator to leave a cable ‘live’ and eliminate a truck roll, doesn’t turn it into an entitlement. Sure, enjoy the free newspaper delivery from the homeowner before you, but don’t get pissed when it stops. Legality doesn’t even factor into the equation. Fuzzy reception? That’s an issue between the individual and the broadcast station, certainly not a burden of the cable operator.So then, what? The entertainment industry is a horrific, mutually dependent industry. The walls have been fortified against attack. Change has to occur in a number of places simultaneously in order for true disruption to happen. Craig Moffett wrote a great research piece recently called “Why There WIll Never Be A Virtual MSO” – you would do well to read it. From the upfronts, through output deals, windowing, retransmission, local advertising, etc. – it’s all interconnected. And hoping for AllVid to be mandated will be the death knell for companies like Boxee who intend to disrupt the aggregation and curation space.If Boxee wanted to disrupt, they would approach the OTA channels in the top 10/25/50/100 markets and build their own IP broadcast service. The technologies (encoding, CDN, DRM) are well established and in many cases commoditized. You could ride over the top of the existing broadband service and disintermediate the cableco.I know you encourage anonymous commenters, and that’s good. My disclosure is that I work for a infrastructure equipment vendor and my only customer segment is cablecos. However we are not a legacy vendor to cablecos and therefore are incented for disruption to IP as much as Boxee.

    1. Brandon Burns

      this critique reads a bit harsh, but there’s a lot of truth in it. i understand why boxee would be upset over this but, from the engadget article, it seems that the cable industry has good reasons — having a box tied to a location, not an account, for easier/cost-effective management of services. anyone who has moved and then waited 2-4 weeks for the cable guy to come around and hook things up should have some sympathy with this.  i’m sure both sides have good points, but from this blog post and the links provided with it, i’m hearing a lot of boxee’s argument and not a lot of the other side. this reminds me of some of the SOPA/PIPA rhetoric from this blog (and the tech industry at large) that lacked both sides of the story. it’s not fair, or effective, to bash the other side without acknowledging, respecting, and then breaking down their argument. your evangelists will rally just because you told them to. the independents will want to weigh both sides before they jump into the fray, and will be skeptical when it seems like the other side of the argument is being hidden.

      1. Brandon Burns

        btw, how many people actually watch broadcast w/o a box? i haven’t seen this number published and it, if small, might make this fight pointless to begin with. 

        1. fredwilson


          1. Brandon Burns

            i’ve been researching this morning — i now see how many people this affects, and how and why.but i still sympathize somewhat with the cable companies’ main point of tying boxes to locations, not accounts. maybe it’s because i spent last night at a friend’s place trying to find internet connections to steal because, 2.5 weeks after moving in, time warner still hadn’t yet made it to their new apt to hook up service. (not cable, but connected as they come from the same place.)speaking as an inadequately informed onlooker, if i were boxee, i’d create and own the middle ground on this issue.

  21. John Revay

    We got a SONY LCD flat panel a few years ago,  at the time – Cablevision – just changed their network in southwestern CT – Changed from having a non scrambled signal for all but the premium content – suddenly we went from having 6 TVs in our home down to two (we only had two set top boxes). I connected the LCD w/ the QAM compatible tuner and after scanning for a bit – we were able to get approx 40+/- channels w/o the set top box (I hate having set top boxes – for several reasons – including a waste of elect).The plan was to always have the set top box connected – since this was in our main family/living room and we needed the set top box to get Disney/Nick stations.That said I abandoned the Co-ax/QAM input mostly because the Chanel line up was different than we were use to and the sony had a terrible interface for navigating these channels.I have not purchased a Boxee yet (somewhat waiting to see what happens w the Apple TV).I trust the Boxee interface is great – I will plan to check it out.

  22. Mark Essel

    As one person who hasn’t had broadcast tv in their home for 4+ years, I think the entire “channel” system should be indecipherably encrypted.

  23. Dan Cornish

    This is exactly why the government should get out of the regulation business. SOPA, ACTA, cable regulation and more – all of these have constituencies which  will work the system over the long term to get what they want. Imagine if the internet was regulated like the cable industry? I fear that it will happen out of the best of intentions. The only way to keep the internet open and free is to keep the government out of it.