The cable television industry has come a long way. There is no doubt about that. Like everything else in life, it has undergone a remarkable evolution in terms of delivery. The way TV signals reach our homes at present is quite different from how they used to in the early years of cable technology.
Back in the day, analog delivery systems reigned supreme, carrying the best of content to analog TVs. Then, an FCC-sponsored ‘all-digital’ transition took place and changed the face of cable television forever.
Cable-ready TVs became incompatible to the digital shift and an era of cable boxes ushered in, with providers like Cox cable streamlining their receivers to include more HD content than ever before.
The question is: Are cable boxes still required today? Do you need a set-top box from your cable provider to watch the subscribed programming? This post explores the possibilities and attempts to answer these questions. Stay tuned.
Understanding Analog vs. Digital Divide
Let’s take a walk down the memory lane. Analog televisions marked the humble beginnings of cable TV. These systems transmitted video and audio data from the broadcasting source to the target TV set in the form of analog signals, which resembled radio waves. Cable-ready TVs with built-in coax connectors simply linked to a CATV wall outlet and displayed the channels directly, without the need of a cable box. However, certain problems showed up with the analog mode of delivery, such as:
Fuzzier Picture & Noise
With analog television systems, the picture and sound quality majorly depended on the distance of the unit from the broadcasting station. A small increase in the distance had a significant impact on the signal reception, resulting in snowy or grainy picture quality and sound interference from the surrounding devices running on radio waves.
Limited Channels & Resolution
Analog systems carried around 60 to 70 channels only, comprising mostly of public-domain networks. Each station had its broadcasting frequency, which took up a lot of space on the network spectrum and failed to meet higher resolution standards. With an analog transmission, you could only watch a picture in a downgraded SD resolution framed by a 4:3 aspect ratio, hardly suitable for wide-screen TV sets.
Analog signals transmitted basic cable in an unscrambled or direct stream. Meaning, the television content coming from the source was not encrypted and was easier to tap into through unauthorized means. This mode of the delivery lead to copyright infringements and gave birth to a number of cable theft cases in the early 2000s.
In a nutshell, analog cable systems had many problems, which is why, around 2010, the FCC issued a nationwide digital conformation. According to it, all broadcasted channels were to be encrypted and delivered in a digital format to American homes.
Today, digital cable has changed the way video and audio signals travel from the source to the TV sets. The display units no longer receive direct transmission via a connection to the wall outlet but have a new device in the middle, known as a cable box or a digital TV receiver. This compact device supersedes the loopholes of analog systems and brings greater convenience to cable subscribers.
Here’s how it works: A DTV signal, in the form of a binary code, moves electronically over the coax cables from the broadcasting source and enters a digital set-top box, which converts it into a viewable feed and plays it on a TV screen. The cable box has an RF outlet if you want to connect it to an analog TV and an HDMI outlet for the latest HDTVs. This new adoption of digital cable technology offers:
Crisp Picture & Sound Quality
Digital cable systems transmit audio and video data electronically through sturdy coax cables, instead of relying on crowded radio frequencies. This leaves lesser room for signal interferences, resulting in better picture quality and sound reception. DTV systems are also compatible with the wide-screen format (16:9), enabling a better resolution on the latest TV models.
Expanded Channel Lineups
A digital mode of delivery supports a higher channel count. You can watch more than 99 channels on a digital cable network that include both the public-domain channels, like TBS or PBS, broadcasted everywhere, and the premium networks that take your entertainment to the next level. In space of a single analog channel, digital can carry up to 15 channels in Standard Definition and up to 3 channels in High Definition. Some cable providers even go to the extent of offering content in 4K Ultra-HD through their advanced digital networks.
Since digital signals compress channel data on the network spectrum, they leave a whole room for other services. In addition to more channels in HD, you get:
- Faster cable internet
- Cable telephone capabilities
- Multi-language audio
- Closed captioning
- Interactive on-screen guides
- Built-in channel applications
- Two-way communication services like Video On Demand and Pay-Per-View, etc.
Not only that, but digital cable systems also eradicate any possibility of cable theft or copyright infringement. The digital signals are encrypted from the source and scrambled to avoid third-party usage. Only the people who pay for television service can watch the television content through their receivers, whether relating to the basic cable or premium cable.
So, Do You Really Need a Cable Box Then?
A cable box gives you access to the scrambled programming from your cable provider. Without a cable box, you may not be able to watch even the basic, public-domain networks that you could easily tune beforehand with an HD antenna. All channels are required by the FCC to be transmitted digitally now, so the need for a digital cable box establishes itself here. In other words, if you are a cable subscriber, you are required to connect every TV in your house to a cable box provider by your cable company. If not every TV, then at least the main one. You could use your digital cable receiver too, given that it is compatible.
Gone are the days of analog; the cable industry is all-digital now, and you would be wise to keep up with the times.