Monday, September 29, 2008

DISH Network Serves Bend Poorly, Has To Go


Before we moved to Bend I looked at the various high-definition TV content carriers. Bend Cable, DISH Network, and DirecTV were on the list. 

Of course we could have just plopped an antenna on the roof and watched the local stations, but we like more programming than the traditional network affiliates provide. HBO and Showtime have original programming that we like, and other cable channels give us something to watch, too. 

(Even so, there are plenty of times when there's "Two hundred channels and nothing but cats.")

Mrs Elliott and I used to have TiVo. The box broke with a hard drive failure. They tried to sell me a new one. "To heck with that -- this box is less than two months old. We'll cancel the service." 

Suddenly they found a way to give me a new box no charge.

Then a year later, that box broke. The HD again. The conversation followed the same formula: they try to sell me a new box, I offer to discontinue service, they offer to send a new box for free.

When the third box failed (no idea why, it just stopped) I decided I didn't want to play the game any more, canceled the service and switched over to the local cable company's DVR. 

Which sucked -- once you've used the TiVo interface, lesser offerings are a pain in the butt. But we stuck with it.  

I vowed that I'd find something better when we moved to Bend, and that's why I decided to try satellite over cable. DISH provided more high def content, so I contacted Para-Tech Satellite Systems in Bend to get some questions answered and set up the service. [Correction (10.15.08): After I posted this blog entry, I was contacted by John Farwell, who is on Bend Cable's senior management team and is responsible for their video product. John kindly provided me with a comparison list showing that once you remove DirecTV's HD pay-per-view channels, their very expensive premium a la carte sports packages,  their regional sports channels not available to folk in this area anyway, and a few bogus standard-def channels upconverted to faux HD, then DirectTV's HD channel count drops below that of Bend Cable, though it still might be better than DISH's lineup. So my information about DISH having more HD content appears to be quite wrong.]

The problems began the day the DISH was up and running. Though we live less than a mile from the transmitting towers atop Awbry Butte, we had no signal from the local stations. This because of a ridge between the towers and our house (digital transmissions are line-of-sight). The little amplified "rabbit ears" antenna which they thought would work great didn't pull in a strong enough signal to get all the stations, and what it could pull in suffered from bad pixillation -- an indication of weak signal.

So the nice folk at Para-Tech came up with a second-hand high-gain directional antenna and a good little signal amplifier, and once the antenna was mounted we got all the stations we should and with good quality images. 

But--and here's the kicker--the DISH box's electronic program guide (EPG) which lists the programs available only works with the signals coming over the satellite dish, not the ones coming off the antenna which was connected to the DISH box. 

I know that a lot of people never bother to look ahead a few days in the EPG to find shows they want to record so they can play them back when they want to watch them. I'm cool with that. 

But Mrs Elliott and I don't roll that way, we likes to record our shows and watch them later. But when the local network affiliate's off-the-air (OTA) programming only displays "DIGITAL SERVICE" in the EPG, you can't select a program and tell the box to record it. 

This, in my opinion, is stupid. Digital television broadcasts are required by the FCC to transmit their programming information along with the signal. But there's no regulation that requires the receiving equipment to decode and display it. 

And DISH apparently decided they couldn't be bothered.

The tech at Para-Tech explained that very few people--he estimated fewer than 1% of DISH subscribers--are in locations where there are local network OTA broadcasts (which means that DISH or other satellite services are forbidden from providing network programming from stations outside the area) but where the local network stations are too small to have their content uploaded to the satellite for locals to view. 

In other larger areas, like Portland, you can have a DISH and watch the Portland channels on it, with full EPG information. But Bend's too small for that. Here, you gotta use an OTA antenna to see the network programs. But since the DISH box doesn't give the programming information, you can't see what shows are playing and what shows are coming up.

One workaround he suggested was to buy a TV Guide or look up listings in the Bulletin, then manually program the DISH box with start and stop times. Like programming a 1980's VCR.

And how often did that work properly? Besides, with a TV Guide on the table, I'd feel like I was in my mother's house again. 

But we tried that idea and found that when you look at the list of recorded shows on the box's EPG all you see is "DIGITAL SERVICE" listed. No telling if it was Judge Judy or 30 Rock.

So that was out. 

One final point about DISH's lack of support for OTA broadcasts: there's only one OTA tuner in the box, so if there are two network shows you want to record which are on at the same time, you're S.O.L. 

None of this had been made clear to me prior to signing up. Para-Tech told me that very few people even care, that they're happy to watch the shows when they are being broadcast. 

"Quick, honey--Perry Mason's about to start!"

No thanks -- "appointment television," is so 20th century. 

Several people suggested telling DISH Network that we had relocated to Portland: simply find a street address there where no one has a DISH subscription (and are unlikely to), and give that to DISH as our residence, tell 'm that we brought the hardware with us and hooked it up, but that our mailing address is still in Bend. They would then cheerfully turn on the Portland stations. 

But those kinds of shenanigans make me uncomfortable.

A final suggestion was to get a standard DVR and let it handle the local channels. It presumably would display the program listings, but that's extra money, more wires and remotes to juggle--and no sale.

So I told Para-Tech that I was canceling the service. Nancy wasn't happy but she understood. And she warned me that I would most likely have to pay cancellation fees to DISH to get out of the contract. 

I called DISH this morning and canceled the service. I stand by my opinion that DISH's laziness w/r/t implementing EPG support for OTA broadcasts wasn't made clear to me, and I consider it to be a deal-breaker. I'm not sure whether I will need to pay the fee to get out of the contract, but I've been told that if one writes a paper letter to DISH to dispute their decision, they have in the past reversed their decision. 

Trick was to find the address to send that letter to. The nice lady at DISH's customer service spent over a minute trying to find it. In the interest of serving others who might need that elusive address, here it is:
Echostar Satellite LLC
DISPUTE RESOLUTION
P.O. Box 9040
Littleton, CO  80120

So how's this going to play out? I have no idea--DISH can either be mensch or schmucks. 

I can say that Para-Tech has been great through all of this. They're just the local installation company for the service and have no influence over DISH's policies or decisions. 

And I can also say that last Wednesday the nice man from Bend Cable came out and set us up with a new dual-recorder high-def cable box that provides the local channels, the same programming as the DISH service, and EPG information for it all.  Picture quality seems on par with DISH's service, too. [Addition 10.15.08: As I learned, Bend Cable's HD lineup is excellent--there's nothing offered in similarly-priced packages from DISH or DirecTV that Bend Cable isn't providing. The picture quality is superb, and I've had zero technical difficulties with the service. 

But I do have two gripes about the Motorola DCH3416 DVR/set top box (stb):

1. Two or three times a night we get an occasional black screen that lasts for about 2 seconds followed by a 2-second audio dropout--a problem we also had with the Moto HD stb--a DCH3412, I believe--provided by our former cable company in Carlsbad. This never occured with the DISH stb. This problem might be an HDMI handshaking issue between the stb and our Philips monitor, or it might be endemic to the Moto boxes, I don't know.

2. Motorola seems to have cheaped out in the microprocessor department on these stbs. In Carlsbad, our DCH3416's processor very often got so busy doing housekeeping or something that it ignored remote control commands, sometimes for 10 or more seconds. This would lead to repeated pressing of the remote's buttons, and nothing would happen. Suddenly the stb would wake up and process all the commands quickly, with the repeats, leading to unexpected results and frustration. The DCH3416 that Bend Cable provided may be a later model. The delays are still there, but usually the box gets around to processing commands in just a few seconds, not the 10 or more seconds that the earlier model took. UPDATE: January 2009 -- the lag has increased to the point now where it's not uncommon to have to wait a dozen or so seconds before the box processes remote commands.]

But it's got the same crappy iGuide user interface (UI) as the cable box we had back in Carlsbad. It really sucks hard. 

[Addition 10.15.08: Bend Cable's John Farwell doesn't deny that the "iGuide" UI is pretty crummy, but that Bend Cable's hands are tied: the company Macrovision, who owns TV Guide's Information Program Guide (IPG) used in the set top boxes, calls the shots. He said that a high-def version of the IPG is forthcoming. Maybe it will let us see more than five channels at a time on the screen, through I don't hold out hope that they'll dump the low-rent ads, though. He also mentioned that Bend Cable is working closely with Diego on their new Moxi two-tuner HDTV DVR unit. Though not yet released, it looks to be an interesting alternative to the Motorola HD DVR running iGuide. The user interface takes a different approach than anything I've ever seen. Dunno if I'll like it. Judge for yourself, there's a demo on Bend Cable's website. John reports that when the Moxi is released it will have a high-def interface, too.

The bottom line for me is that Bend Cable seems to be working really hard to bring lots of high quality HD content to its users. As I mentioned, the number of HD channels is perfectly satisfactory and the picture quality is excellent. If the Moxi turns out to be as good as John says it is, then I'll cheerfully drop the Moto box and pay the $2 a month extra for that box. Thanks, John, for the additional information!]

14 comments:

  1. Let us know how Bend Cable goes. We've got DirecTV, and because the local NBC, ABC, CBS, etc stations are available by antenna, we can't get them digital.

    At least that's what they tell us. And that Bend is one of six places in the country where this happens, or some such. So I can watch Grey's Anatomy all fuzzy like in one corner of the upstairs.

    Sigh. Maybe we should renegotiate. But that is my husband's area of expertise. And in our four years of marriage, I've learned not to tell him what to do in these situations.

    Hey, fuzzy Grey's Anatomy, and a happy home? I'll take it! :)

    -SaraM

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  2. @ sara: So far, no complaints about Bend Cable. Mrs Elliott gets her Grey's Anatomy from Bend's KOHD in glorious high-definition[1] WITH program guide information so it's just as easy to record that show for later watching as the rest of the programming, and I gets my Mythbusters (in HD). We both get our Mad Men (also in HD). I think I should mention that I think that HD is a Good Thing.

    I'm no fan of cable companies, with their sometimes poor video quality, their crummy program guides[1](a pet peeve: the program guide displays only a measly five channels at a time so the remote's Page Up and Page Down buttons get a workout AND there's always a advertisement on the channel guide screen[2]), and having dozens of crap channels bundled with a few good ones[3], which are reasons why I wanted to go the satellite route this time.

    1. She points out that the ladies of Desperate Housewives don't benefit from the scrutiny of HD.
    2. Shades of AOL: You pay for the service and have to tolerate ads, too.
    3. It's protectionism, pure and simple. As long as some lousy cable channel knows they have guaranteed sales then they won't spend a cent to improve the product.

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  3. Jack,

    I live up the street from you on Rimrock and noticed your post regarding TV service. I'm on the senior management team at BendBroadband and am responsible for our video product.

    Luckily for you you've moved to an area with one of the most progressive cable companies in the US (sorry - it's something we're very proud of)! You commented about the number of HD channels - HD has been a strategic priority for us for the past 18 months and at close to 65 channels today - going to about 75 by year end, we lead the nation relative to cable companies. While satellite likes to claim huge HD numbers, look closely at how they get to those figures. I'm happy to email you a comparison chart if desired.

    Since you are using the iGuide IPG and clearly unhappy with it, I'd highly recommend you look at the Digeo Moxi product. Digeo has a new set top, the MC3 which we will be launching very soon. BendBroadband is the first cable company to launch the new set top. Their UI won an Emmy several years ago. Many people, including yours truly, love this IPG.

    I'm happy to be resource for you and anyone else who has questions or concerns regarding our service. We pride ourselves on listening and highly value customer feedback.

    Regards,
    John Farwell

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  4. @ John: Thanks for the comments. The Diego Moxi product does sound interesting, but

    http://www.lightreading.com/document.asp?site=cdn&doc_id=143359

    and

    http://www.zatznotfunny.com/2008-01/more-bad-news-for-moxi/

    so whether the MC3 sees the light of day remains to be seen. And if Diego goes out of business, do we know whether the STB's IPG would continue to have content?

    Whatever, I'm not an industry insider, I guess all one can do is wait and see.

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  5. Jack,

    It's true that Digeo initially made what we consider a poor choice in priorities, going after a high end retail product. However, they changed direction and focused on this new cable TV product, which will be launching first with us and then with Charter. We are in final testing and pre launch phase at this time. We'll have the product at the home and garden show next Fri-Sun or you can check it out in our lobby in the near future. You've no doubt reviewed the guide experience on line. It's not for everyone, but even though I'm a "spreadsheet" guy (iGuide reminds me of a spreadsheet format), I much prefer the Moxi UI.

    All of us would like to see more rapid improvements in the iGuide. Unfortunately TVGuide ops, since sold to Macrovision, moves like a glacier. The product and integration into multiple system configurations is so complex that any change requires layers of approvals and months and months of testing and debugging. The result, delay after delay in new releases. Very frustrating!

    Customer satisfaction is priority one, so be sure to let me know if you have any issues.

    John

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  6. @ John: Thanks for the insight behind the scenes w/r/t iGuide. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that it's crappiness is due to it being a bureaucratic clusterf#@k.

    I might be able to swing by the Home and Garden show to check out the Moxi thing. Has price been set?

    Oh, you might let someone know that the 2 for 1 link on COBA's site to the show (http://www.coba.org/www.bendbroadband.com) is broken.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jack,

    Thanks for the heads up on the COBA link. Passed this on to the individual that handles events and sponsorships.

    I noticed that you made a comment earlier that Dish had more HD. I found that surprising and wanted to ask how you arrived at that conclusion. I just did an analysis comparing our HD content to DirecTV, and they claim to be THE national leader supposedly with 130 channels. This is very interesting. We now have 62 channels and are headed to around 75 by Nov or Dec. DirecTV had an insert in the Sunday Bulletin where the headline was 130 but the list was 97. The 33 missing appear to be pay per view channels (ha ha) and premium sports packages (big bucks). Of the 97 listed a significant number were regional sports networks only available to a specific region, not nationally. Comparing apples to apples we have a number they don't carry and are about to launch a few that they have now that we don't. In the end, with local channels and HD VOD I believe we have the superior product. I try to keep it real, they are superb at marketing hype.

    In any case wanted to see if you are getting HD and if so, get your opinion on the quality and quantity.
    thanks! John

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  8. @ John: Well, you got me. I read a few reviews online--forget where, maybe Gizmodo.com or Engaget.com--where I picked up that DISH had the most HD content vis a vis DirecTV. I didn't look to Bend Cable at the time because I thought I wanted satellite. Post your comparison analysis and I will cheerfully correct my blog posting and admit my laziness in the original posting.

    Yes, we're watching HD (mostly) and the picture quality is peachy. With regard to quantity, we have the Preferred package and I don't think we're missing any HD channels that are important to us--unlike with Time Warner in that foreign country down south that we left.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Jack,

    If you want to review it, I'd be happy to email you the comparison file if you provide your email address. The comparison is between DirecTV and BendBroadband HD content and is in an Excel file. Not familiar with how to post an Excel file to a forum. Dish has recently launched a "turbo HD" product. This is a fancy name for a selection of all HD channels. Their top "Turbo" package sells for $40 (without including any hidden charges). It claims "over 55 channels". However if you count them you will see 36 and then it mentions "over 20 PPV and on demand channels". This is simply a trick to claim a high number of HD channels. Let's say at any given time a subscriber of BendBB can go to our On Demand product and order any one of 100 different movies or shows in HD (some of which by the way are free, like Mad Men On Demand. Does that mean I can claim each of those 100 as another channel? If I divided those 100 shows into groups of 10 and rotated them on 10 PPV channels do I count 10 more HD channels or groups of 5 and call it 20 HD PPV channels - you get the point? What is better, being able to watch any one of 5 or 10 PPV channel choices at a given moment or 100 VOD choices?

    John

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  10. @ John: P-mail that Excel file to camping DOT elliott AT gmail DOT com

    (I don't know if spammer search engines crawl blogger.com comments.)

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  11. I am not familiar with P-mail. How does one set this up?

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  12. @ John: Sorry, newsgroup lingo for "private email", as in "send me an email."

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  13. Strange that you've had so many issues with your TIVO boxes; we've had two for years now without issue. I understand that there's an upper temperature threshold beyond which they may have problems. Was the box in a place where it got sufficient cool air? I have one almost directly under a swamp cooler, which is good for the temp but bad for the dust.

    I'm kind of surprised that you didn't get into it yourself, considering your abilties and inclinations. There's a hugely involved online community devoted to TIVO and the company encourages a certain amounting of hacking, or they used to. There's a ton of info out there. At any rate, you could probably unload the carcass for a little cash if you still have it.
    I just bought some parts to begin construction of a multimedia computer for the living room. I'll be using the downloadable program guides and so on to set up a 'free' DVR.

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  14. We had a Moxi from Bend Broadband. I loved the interface and features. There were a couple of major issues though. The major one was regular failure to record programs because of a "failed signal". Some channels it refused to pull in at all. Also, despite regular attention with a can of air, it would overheat on occasion.

    Having said that, I HATE the Motorola DVR with a vengeance. It will decide there's nothing to record despite there being 20+ shows scheduled, all with new episodes. The hangs because of the 1994 processor are very annoying. The lack of search features (with the Moxi I could search for programs by keyword, actors, etc.). The inability to record seasons of sports programs for some obscure reason. Recording the Daily Show and Colbert is a pain and has to be done manually. Set either up as a season recording with the "new" option and it will record the show every time it's on (4 times a day). Sometimes it loses season recordings all together. Also, for some reason, our Motorola DVR seems to be obsessed with "Lipstick Jungle". It records it even though we have never watched it.
    My ideal DVR would be a reliable Moxi. I hate the Motorola so much that I'd switch to satellite in a second if I could get local channels, regardless of cost.
    I'm eying a Tivo HD XL at the moment. I need to call BB to find if they can provide a CableCard for it.

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