TV Reception

Although the TV Broadcast Formats article talks about the way TV is encoded, it doesn't actually talk about how to receive TV. So, this article fills that gap by explaining the different ways to receive TV.

Overview of Different Methods

If you want to receive live TV for free, then digital over-the-air (DOTA) is the way to go. An excellent article by the FCC discussing what type of antenna you would need to get is found here [1]. If you want to receive an expanded channel lineup or possibly improved channel quality, then getting a cable or satellite subscription and renting a piece of equipment is what you should do. Finally, if you don't mind waiting a day or two after the original program airs, watching that particular program on the Internet is yet another option. This last option is typically accomplished by going to the network's website, i.e. if you want to watch an ABC program go to

Clear QAM: The (Former) Rent-Free Alternative to Cable Boxes

Provided you have a cable subscription, it has also been possible to connect an HDTV directly to a cable outlet and receive basic channels in High-Definition (HD). This method is known as clear QAM. However, the FCC's decision on Oct. 12, 2012 to allow cable companies to encrypt all channels including the basic ones means that this method will eventually cease to exist in your area, if it hasn't already [2].

Types of Cable Boxes

When renting a cable box from the cable company, there are actually three different types of cable boxes. They are:

  1. a digital transport adapter (DTA), sometimes referred to as a digital television adapter or simply a digital adapter. A DTA is a simple device that lacks HD video output and doesn't allow for an on-screen channel guide, On Demand programming, or pay-per-view [3] [4]. These services are known as two-way services because they require the device to both get information from and send information to the cable company. One-way devices only get information from the cable company. As for HD video output, Comcast Cable, the "the nation's largest video, high-speed Internet and phone provider" [5], plans on achieving nationwide deployment of HD-enabled DTAs by the end of 2013 [6].
  2. a digital set-top box (DSTB), also known as a digital cable box, digital converter box or digital receiver. A DSTB works with two-way services [4]. Standard-Definition (SD) DSTBs lack HD output while HD DSTBs don't.
  3. a digital video recorder (DVR), which is like a DSTB but has the added ability to record programming. Like DSTBs, DVRs can come in either an SD or HD version [7].


CableCARD, available for consumer use beginning in late 2004, is a card from the cable company that can be placed in a TV that then allows the TV to access all channels the consumer has subscribed to in HD [8]. Despite a brief period of initial popularity [9], this technology has largely failed to take off. This is mostly because TV makers have stopped putting CableCARD slots in TVs. A brief timeline of CableCARD past its initial late 2004 offering is presented below:

Additional Outlet (AO) Fees & the Customer Owned Equipment (COE) Credit

Two potential areas of confusion for the cable customer are AO fees and the COE credit.

AO fees are rental fees for equipment not included in your cable package. To take an example, suppose your cable subscription allows you to rent one DTA, CableCARD, or DSTB for free. Equipment rented beyond your initial free piece of equipment would then have a rental fee, and this rental fee is known as the AO fee. DTAs generally have the lowest AO fee, DSTBs have a higher AO fee, and DVRs have the highest AO fee. Additionally, although an HD DSTB or DVR has the added benefit of HD in comparison with an SD DSTB or DSTB, an SD DSTB or DVR and an HD DSTB or DVR may in fact have the same AO fee. If this is the case in your area, you may wonder why SD DSTBs and DVRs are being offered at all when you could get an HD DSTB or DVR for the same price. The answer is that certain packages may include an SD DSTB or DVR for free while other packages may include an HD DSTB or DVR for free.

Next up is the COE credit. Although a CableCARD may have the same AO fee as a DSTB in your area, it probably has a slightly lower monthly rental fee. How is this possible? When renting a CableCARD, you may be issued a COE credit, which is basically a discount on the AO fee [16].



1. Antennas and Digital Television. May 10, 2011. Federal Communications Commission.

2. Commission Relaxes The Cable Encryption Prohibition. Oct. 12, 2012. Federal Communications Commission.

3. Comcast Expert. All about digital adapters. Apr. 26, 2012 4:01:38 PM. ©2012 Comcast.

4. Comcast Expert. Digital boxes vs. digital adapters. June 18, 2012 8:18:28 PM. ©2012 Comcast.

5. Company Overview. ©2012 Comcast.

6. Mike Robuck. Comcast deploys HD DTAs, ponders TR-069. Dec. 19, 2012 1:09 PM. Communications, Engineering, and Design Magazine. ©2012 Advantage Business Media.

7. DVR (Digital Video Recorder) and HD DVR Service. ©Comcast 2012.

8. Nate Anderson. CableCARD: A Primer. Feb. 7, 2006 2:00 AM UTC. Ars Technica. ©2012 Condé Nast.

9. Jim Hu and Richard Shim. FAQ: CableCard? What's that?. Jan. 20, 2005 4:00 AM PST. CNET. ©2012 CBS Interactive.

10. OpenCable™ — CableCARD™ Primer. ©2012 CableLabs.

11. Samsung Electronics Gains CableLabs® Certification on 2-Way Digital Television. Aug. 23, 2005. ©2012 CableLabs.

12. Chloe Albanesius, Bryan Gardiner, and Mark Hachman. CableCards Arrive July 1, And No One's Happy. June 28, 2007 12:11 AM EST. PCMAG.COM. ©1996-2012 Ziff Davis, Inc.

13. Press Release Archives. ©2012 CableLabs.

14. LG Electronics and Funai Electric Sign Tru2way™ MOU. July 28, 2008. ©2012 CableLabs.

15. CableCARD: Know Your Rights. Aug. 8, 2011. Federal Communications Commission.

16. Comcast Expert. About CableCARDS. Apr. 26, 2012 5:06:06 PM. ©2012 Comcast.