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TiVo HD, Comcast and CableCARDs

First off, welcome to 2008. I mostly don’t do New Year’s resolutions, but if I were to make one, it would be “post on Oddball Update more often.” I seem to have mostly gotten the rest of my house in order, at least in terms of no longer working myself to death, trying not to get upset about petty things, and having a positive outlook toward the future that life may bring me. I have, however, been rather neglectful of this site lately, so I’ll see if I can do something to change that. It’s the first day of the new year and I’m posting, so that’s a start. I hesitate to pledge to post once a day or anything like that, since that’s largely just setting myself up to fail, but more than once a week would at least be nice.

TiVo HD

With 2008 barely a day old, I’m already surrounded by technology aplenty. We celebrated a somewhat laid-back Christmas this year, but were joined by my parents here in Florida for the occasion, which was great. They generously gifted Apple and I with a new TiVo HD and a lifetime service subscription, which was beyond awesome. It didn’t take long before I had it set up, with both tuners resolving the full slate of analog channels with absolutely no problem.

However, in order to receive digital and HD channels — the TiVo HD’s raison d’être — it needs to be equipped with CableCARDs. These small devices, which are very similar to PCMCIA cards, essentially do all the heavy lifting that your cable box does: receiving and decrypting digital, HD and premium channels from your cable company. In fact, they serve the same purpose as a cable box, without the “box” part. By placing two of them in a TiVo, one for each tuner, you activate the TiVo’s ability to access your full channel lineup directly.

It sounds simple enough, but like so much else about technology, it oftentimes isn’t. I am now experiencing one of those “not so simple” times.

A couple days after I had the TiVo HD up and running, a Comcast technician arrived to install two Scientific Atlanta CableCARDs. This process involves inserting the card, calling the Comcast head-end office and reading them a series of identifying numbers so that they can “pair” the cable card with my TiVo box. This pairing process is done to ensure that my TiVo box is the only device authorized to receive service on the card. The cable company then initializes the card by sending it a signal, and then streaming a series of packets to the card that give it the lineup of channels it is allowed to decrypt. This lineup is based, of course, on the service level I’ve purchased from Comcast.

The tech who came to install my CableCARDs admitted he’d never managed to complete a successful CableCARD install before. (Of course, he’d only tried once before, so that’s merely 0-for-1.) Still, he was pleasant and seemed to want to be helpful, so I did what I could to assist. We tried for a while but couldn’t get the first CableCARD to work; only the analog channels were coming through, which meant the card wasn’t actually doing anything. However, after swapping out the card with a second one, re-pairing it and having the head-end send another init signal, it started to work perfectly. Yay! One more card to go.

Unfortunately, the CableCARD we put into slot #2 did not fare so well. It exhibited the same problems as the first card we’d tried. Since the tech had only brought three cards with him — which was terribly optimistic, given the apparent failure rate of these things — we did not have the ability to swap it out and try a different one. Still, it can often take upwards of 10 minutes for Scientific Atlanta cards to download a complete channel map. Since both the technician and myself were almost completely unfamiliar with CableCARDs, we both thought it a reasonable assumption that if the head-end sent out another init signal after 10 minutes or so, it would start working. The tech had already been here for an hour and wanted to take off, so I stupidly let him, assuming all would be well. It wasn’t.

The second CableCARD never started working, so I essentially had a single-tuner TiVo HD. Not entirely bad, but nothing to rely upon — the TiVo itself expected that second card to work, so if I set up any recordings, I’d be taking a chance that it would choose tuner #2 and I’d get an hour’s worth of black screen. So I called Comcast and tried to explain to the customer support rep that I need another init signal sent to my second CableCARD.

The girl agreed to send a signal right away — to both of my cards. A little overkill, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt. Sadly, card #2 simply refused to acknowledge. The CSR said it looked like the second card would need to be replaced, so she scheduled a technician to come to my house and replace it. The soonest he could get there was in a week, on January 2nd. Even worse, within a few minutes of hanging up the phone, I suddenly had lost tuner #1 — the one that had been working perfectly. As it turns out, for some reason, the Comcast rep had completely deleted the first CableCARD from my account!

Three calls later, I managed to get hold of another guy who was able to figure out what had happened. He added the card back to my account. Unfortunately, as I was soon to learn, when a CableCARD is deleted from a Comcast account, it generates a new Card ID — probably as a security measure. This breaks the “pairing” we had established with my TiVo box, since the “pair” consists of two values: the ID of the card, and the ID of the slot it’s installed in. If a card is not paired, it cannot receive any signals or packets sent to it by the cable company. So, the card was not able to get the messages about the channel lineup I should receive, and as a result, it only gave me the basic digital tier and the free-to-air HD channels. My Encore movie channels and extended HD tier was unavailable.

Right about now would be a good time to insert a mental picture of me pulling my hair out.

Onward I pressed. Over the next couple of days, I continually called Comcast and tried to get them to transfer me to the magical, mystical technician who knows how to pair CableCARDs. Even if I had to wait for a tech to replace card #2, I could at least try to get the first card working again — since I know for a fact it was working before. Finally, at long last, I succeeded in getting hold of a CableCARD expert, who asked me for the card and host ID numbers. But there was still no dice — the girl on the phone stated that her system was not letting her save the changes she had made to the card configuration! She said there was nothing else she could do, and that the technician was going to have to replace the first card, too. Apparently, once the card ID changes, the card has to go back to the Comcast warehouse and be reprogrammed, re-flashed or whatever.

GAAAAAH!

So, in the meantime, I’ve got one 80% functioning CableCARD and one completely dead one. Tomorrow, though, is the magic day when technician number two arrives, and we (hopefully) get this whole mess straightened out once and for all. I asked the phone support rep to make a note on the work order that I wanted the guy to bring as many spare cards as he could get his hands on. Even though I only need two, given the astronomical rate of duds, having the tech bring as many as eight is not actually unreasonable. But we’ll see what happens.

Incidentally, from what I can tell of the functionality I’ve experienced so far, the TiVo HD is an awesome little box. It does everything our old TiVo Series 2 does, and more…and most importantly, it directly decodes digital and HD signals. It can even transfer shows between both TiVos, and to my computer for watching or archiving. The only limitation is the 160 GB hard drive — good only for 20 hours of HD content — but as soon as the warranty expires, I’m planning to drop in a 750 GB replacement.

Meanwhile, my dad is watching this entire saga closely. You see, my mom bought him a TiVo HD as well — so when he gets home, it’ll be his turn to dive into the pool of CableCARD installation madness! Absurdly, there’s very little my experience can tell him; as I live in a Scientific Atlanta area and he lives in a Motorola area, the details of the equipment, procedures and diagnostic screens will have very little in common. And as they say, the devil’s in those details.

I’ll post a follow-up tomorrow night, with news of how the second CableCARD installation went. Hopefully, by then, I’ll be in high-def TiVo heaven.

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