Update: Several service providers including Comcast have changed the encoding of certain network's signals in the past few months the result of which means the new codec cannot be decoded on older third-party cable boxes like the Motorola DCH70 SD Cable Box or Motorola DCH6416. If you're renting them from a cable service provider, they will need to be replaced – usually for free – by your provider itself. However, bought these cable boxes outright, you are urged to upgrade them via a third-party retailer or call your cable company to talk about your options for a discounted service rate.
When former Engadget editor Ryan Block recorded his attempt to cancel cable service over the phone and had to deal with an unrelenting – nay, annoying – Comcast representative, the truth many of us knew for years became public knowledge: Cable companies will do anything to get money from you.
The cable industry has concocted dozens of dirty plans over the years, from establishing a non-compete clause in the biggest markets – like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles – to fighting the FCC tooth-and-nail against Net Neutrality. (Remember when "internet fast lanes" were proposed for internet-based content providers like Netflix?)
Since the 1980s, cable providers have merged over and over again until five, all-powerful companies remained: Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, Cox and AT&T. Thanks to a sheer lack of competition in most markets, these firms go out of their way to stick you with extra services and equipment that you don't need – all so that they can pinch an extra $20 to $30 per month from you.
This, my friends, is the line in the sand. It's time someone starts looking out for you.
So, how can you fight back against the companies that practically compete for "The Worst Company in America" award on an annual basis? For starters, you can stop renting equipment from them.
It's your right to own your cable box
One of the most common misconceptions about cable is that you have to use your cable provider's equipment in order for it to work. You don't.
According to the FCC's website, for broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, Charter, Cox and the over 800 local cable companies around the country, it's your right to purchase your own cable box and/or modem, install a cablecard on your own volition and, as a result of these actions, the cable company cannot charge you a penny more for choosing to not use their hardware.
"Right," you think to yourself, "but how much money could I really save? Buying my own box sounds more expensive than renting one."
"Most customers buy anywhere in between one and four boxes from us, which can amount in several hundred dollars in savings per year and several thousand dollars over the life of the cable box," says Jay Bianchini, lead activation tech and manager of third-party cable box vendor CableBoxandModem.com.
Bianchini, who has helped customers with over 5,200 installations, claims that it's not uncommon for people to save over $100 per cable box over the course of a single year.
"Most customers buy anywhere in between one and four boxes from us, which can amount in several hundred dollars in savings per year and several thousand dollars over the life of the cable box," Bianchini said.
A Motorola DCH70 SD Cable Box, for example, goes for $135 on HDDVRTV.com – that pays for itself after 10 months, if you're paying the standard rate $15/month for a cable box.
A Motorola DCH6416 – a 160GB, DVR-enabled HD set-top box – sells for $250. Considering that most cable companies charge you $25 a month for equipment rentals, this would pay for itself before the end of the year.
Keep these boxes for five or more years, and you'll have the thousands needed to buy a truly primo 4K TV.
Want an extreme example? In my house, I had three DVR systems that Comcast charged $19.95 for. Though replacing them with three DVR systems from HDDVRTV cost $750, I stand to make almost all of that money back within the first year.
Owning these boxes for three years means I'll save around $1,500 in rental fees. If I use them for five years, I'll keep close to $3,000 out of Comcast's pocket. It's an extreme example, I'll admit, but it's not unheard of for serious entertainment enthusiasts.
But, in a cruel twist of fate and despite your best efforts, you can't completely separate yourself from the cable company. You're going to need something called a cablecard – essentially a small, $2 to $4 adapter that allows you to receive the television signal – in order to make this work, and, of course, a cable subscription.
Cable companies are legally obligated to not only sell you cablecards without hassle, but to also walk you through installing them on your cable box – regardless of where you bought it from.
"I always get on the phone with the customer when they call the cable company," Bianchini said. "Within minutes, I'll know if they have a bad cablecard and need it replaced."
I asked Bianchini: What happens when you just can't get someone on the phone?
"You just need to know when to hang up and call back."
If you're hesitant to admit that you bought a third-party cable box when requesting a cablecard, many people tend to say that the card will be used in a TiVo system, which requires a cablecard in order to function.
'...we're like a virus to them'
According to the FCC's website, it's also your right to know all this information before renting a cable box. Most cable company representatives conveniently forget to tell you when you're first signing up for your service.
"If you call, some low-level service operator will tell you 'no, you can only use our equipment,'" Bianchini said. "The cable companies aren't going to train their employees to help people purchase their own equipment."
"It's a multi-billion dollar business, and we're like a virus to them. They don't want us to grow. They'll do anything and everything they possibly can to stop you from buying your own box. That's the biggest problem."
We've reached out to Comcast regarding Bianchini's comments, but the company has not responded as of this writing.
After my discussion with Bianchini only one question remained: If this is such a good deal, why don't more people do this?
"They don't know. Most people just aren't aware of it." And knowing, as they say, is half the battle.
Disclosure: The information presented in this article applies to Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, Charter, Cox and over 800 local cable companies around the country. However this does not include AT&T, DISH or DIRECTV. The majority of boxes sold on HDDVRTV and Cable Box and Modem come from a Motorola refurbishing facility based in Brownsville, Texas and are sold without warranty. To that end, third-party hardware is not guaranteed to work and should be purchased only once you've confirmed with your cable company that the solution will work.