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Your Guide to Cable TV and Cable TV Providers

The days of "rabbit ear" TV reception are long gone for most folks. The two dominant forces today are cable TV and satellite TV.

Cable has been around longer and has the advantage of not losing the signal during storms; satellite has the advantage of not depending on a hard physical connection, which makes it ideal for remote locations.

How is Cable TV Delivered to the Home?

The physical connection that cable primarily uses is coaxial cable, and to a lesser extent, optical fiber. Coax is made up with a central core, surrounded by a layer of insulation, a magnetic shield, and a durable, weather-resistant plastic jacket.

Coax is very easy to work with using connectors, splitters, etc. In recent years, cable modems allow users to even watch TV on their computer monitors. In most cases, coax is buried along with other utilities, although initially it was strung on poles along with telephone and power lines.

When cable TV was in its infancy, they simply delivered the goods and for the most part it was all commercial-free; this was one of the ways they lured viewers away from rabbit-ear "free" TV. Sadly, they've since shepherded them right in. On the balance though, most have provided a good deal on DVRs (Digital Video Recorders) so subscribers can watch when they want to and fast forward through the dreaded commercials.

Major Cable TV Providers

The NCTA (National Cable & Telecommunication Association) lists a mind-boggling number of cable providers, but most of them are regional, so limited in scope. These smaller companies may have aspirations, but the big players have deep pockets and a lot of advertising dollars. Let's take a look at the ones that the typical homeowner (you!) is likely to work with. This data is provided by NCTA at www.ncta.com.

  • Comcast Cable Communications – This is the big dog on the block with an estimated 24,691,000 subscribers. With this much muscle, they successfully bundle Internet services with their TV offerings and digital phone service. How did Comcast get this big? They've leveraged the market and bought out some smaller providers.
  • Time Warner Cable – TWC is one of the most recognized names in cable TV and was one of the pioneers in the industry. Coming in second in number of subscribers, with 13,306,000. TWC also offers a bundled service, combining TV, digital phone, and the notable Road Runner Internet provider service.
  • Cox Communications – Cox is next with 5,420,000 subscribers. In an effort to stay competitive and leverage more market share, Cox also bundles the three services that the big dogs do.
  • Charter Communications – Charter is giving Cox a run for their money. They are closing in with 5,208,000 customers. (They also offer a bundle. Has it become obvious that in this market, it's the only way to stay competitive?) Charter currently offers a very timely incentive, a Shell gasoline gift card when a new customer signs up. $25 for one service, $50 for two services, and $100 for all three services. Gasoline? That's thinking on your feet!
  • Cablevision Systems – Cablevision checks in with 3,125,000 subscribers. Cablevision may be smaller than the big boys listed above, but they're shouldering their way in with the typical three component bundle for only $29.95 per month for the first year, according to their web site. Would this get someone's attention? You bet!
  • Next in the line-up is Bright House Networks, LLC. BHN currently supports 2,339,741 viewers. As a smaller company, the areas they serve is limited. Currently, they're in Florida, Alabama, California, Michigan, and Indiana.
  • Suddenlink Communications (formerly Cebridge Connection), serves  1,406,445 customers in Arkansas, Texas, California, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia.

What's New in the World of Cable TV?

Not just cable and satellite, but as of February 17, 2009, all TV transmission will say good bye to analog and go digital (DTV). What does this mean for viewers? If your set isn't digital-ready, you'll have to use a converter box. If you're set was made later than March 1, 2007, it has a digital tuner or is digital-ready.

Also hot right now is HDTV (High Definition TV). Some people believe that DTV is the same thing as HDTV. Not exactly. There are 18 DTV standards defined by the Advanced Television Standards Committee (ATSC). HDTV is just the highest defined standard.

Another hot area is Verizon's Fios, which is fiber optic that comes directly into a consumer's home. Verizon also offers a package of Internet, phone and TV.

How should you go about choosing a cable TV service with so many choices out there? Generally, it boils down to two things: Channel package and price.

Choose wisely and then break out the popcorn.

Kelly Smith is a former software engineer at NASA and a professional handyman who is now a full-time writer.

Article written July 2008

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