A few months ago, Comcast notified me that they were enhancing the basic cable to be “all digital” and how great that would be. Great, my ass. That’s code for force people to get cable boxes who don’t want them. As I wrote back in August, the net effect is that it takes away the “cable-ready” capability of TVs, VCRs, and most important to me: my precious ReplayTV DVRs. That means that whereas I used to be able to just run the Comcast feed directly into the back of ReplayTV and let ReplayTV do the tuning, I’ll need to add a cable box in the mix now and the cable box will change channels with ReplayTV always watching Channel 3. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Now granted, “cable-ready” only gets you so far. You can’t watch any of the stations that were already in the digital realm – generally the stations over channel number 100. But, if I exclude HD (since I use an HD DVR from Comcast to watch HDTV because, sadly, there is still no HD version of ReplayTV), most of the stations I watch are under 100. In addition to the broadcast networks, there are a handful of “basic cable” stations that I watch like the Food Network and Comedy Central. So I’ve had something like 200 channels available to me to watch but the channels that were digital only and not visible on the ReplayTV were not ones I cared about for the most part. But now, with this new “all digital” switchover, Comcast has moved the line in the sand beyond where it matters for me. Which means to keep using the ReplayTV DVRs, I have to hook each of them up to a stupid cable box.

Comcast normally charges for cable boxes and they were at least smart enough to know that they weren’t going to be able to suddenly start charging customers for cable boxes who didn’t want them anyway. And they also knew that they couldn’t give the cable boxes away free because then the people who were paying for them would want them free too. So they came up with a specialized version of a cable box that is about the size of 3 CD jewel cases stacked on top of each other. In a way, it’s back to the old days of the first cable boxes where the sole purpose for the thing is to change channels. These, they can give away free. And to distinguish them from their other set-top-boxes (STBs), they call them Digital Transport Adapters (DTAs). But practically speaking, there’s little difference between the DTA and a cable box from an end user perspective: you use it to change channels.

Getting them working turned out to be a major pain in the ass. I started the process on Friday. And since I had already done the conversion at my parents’ house, I knew the process and I knew what I should expect. I quickly wired up both of the DTAs (because Comcast tells you that you should do both at the same time) and entered in the info on the web activation page. Then I waited for the channels to show up. They say it should take up to 45 minutes but I know from my parents’ house that it should take less than 5 minutes. Still, when nothing came up in 5 minutes, I decided to give it the 45 to see what would happen.

An hour later, the devices were still not activated. There’s a phone number in the instructions to call if you are having problems. I called and an automated attendant ran me through the same steps I had just done and confirmed that my DTAs were not working. So I was transferred to a human who had about the same level of skill as the automated attendant. After 30 minutes of having the automated attendant and the human tell me to unplug, plug back in, and watch a green light blink at me in two-blink bursts, I finally got transferred to a human who new something more. She said there was a back up in the activation queue and that I should wait a couple hours. She actually called me back a couple hours later to check in – still no luck. She said the back up was still going and that I should check in the next day.

Saturday morning, I got started early and found that the DTAs had still not activated. I tried re-activating through the web but still no luck. I called the same phone number, dealt with the same automated attendant, and eventually got transferred to a human again. Unfortunately, this human had way less going on upstairs that the automated attendant and ultimately all she did was waste my time (multiple power cycle tests and dumb questions like: “are you sure you have the cables hooked up properly”; me:”yes, because if they weren’t I wouldn’t be able to see a message saying that my service has been interrupted”). After another 30 minutes on the phone, I finally got her to transfer me to the tech support people. The woman who came on told me to try a few more things and said that she didn’t see any kind of backup in any kind of activation queue and that there wasn’t one yesterday – entirely contradicting the person I talked to yesterday. She eventually sent a “strong” reset signal that she said would do the trick and would take about 60 minutes.

But you already know it didn’t, don’t you. Fortunately, I had gotten her to tell me how to call the tech support people back directly so I called back and talked to a guy who ran me through the same tests yet another time. But this guy seemed more convinced right away that there was a problem and didn’t waste my time trying things over and over. He said there were only two choices – swap the DTAs for new ones or call for a service visit to the house. I opted for the DTA swap and drove to the nearest Comcast service center to unload the little bastards and get new ones.

Back at home, I hooked up the new DTAs and went to the web to activate them. Ha-ha, Comcast. Very funny. The web page didn’t update with the new DTA details. So I could only activate the DTAs that I no longer have. Another call to Comcast and I talked to another person in tech support. She told me there was a phone number I should call to do the activation but as you might suspect, at this point, I was done calling other numbers and asked her to do it for me. A minute later, the DTA still hadn’t activated correctly so I started in on all the troubles I’d been having and telling her that I didn’t even want the stupid things and that I’d already burned through two mornings wasting time and… the activation worked. So for whatever reason, the DTAs that had been shipped to my house arrived DOA and the new ones that looked just like the ones that I had first ended up working. All of the previous effort had been a waste with DOA equipment. And it took about 4 minutes for each of the new DTAs to activate – just enough time to have started ranting.

But that’s only the first half of the battle. These DTAs come with the warning that IR flashers on VCRs (and by extension, DVRs) wouldn’t work with them. Why? Apparently they were being honest in recognizing that any device that is already out there with an IR flasher won’t know the IR codes for this new contraption. A little digging on my particular DTAs turned up that they were made by Thomson and that there were a number of people who had already figured out the codes for them. Sadly, ReplayTV remains in limbo where Denon still owns the service and happily takes my monthly fees but provides no actual support like updating IR codes for new devices. Which means more stringent methods would need to be employed to get the ReplayTV to learn about Comcast’s stupid DTA. (Have I typed “stupid” enough yet in this post? I don’t think so.)

As much events like this DTA fiasco highlight all that is wrong with corporate telecom companies, they also spotlight all that is right with the Internet bringing together people with similar problems. I was so happy to find that other people had not only figured out the DTA codes but also how to load them on to a ReplayTV. There were a number of posts at JP1 and AVS that were helpful:

I took a lot of wrong turns and was told a few things that were wrong during the last 3 days. Eliminating all the stuff that didn’t help or wasted time, here are the steps that I would have taken to do the full stupidgrade (not an upgrade!), should anyone reading this need to do the same:

First, you are going to need a few things. For starters, you’ll need a PC running WiRNS. (If you don’t already have it installed, the setup is nontrivial but you can take some shortcuts as some of the links above describe.) Make sure WiRNS is running and that you can see the main page that shows the DLLs that are loaded and that GetShellCommands.dll is one of the DLLs that is loaded. (If you are having problems starting WiRNS, make sure DVArchive isn’t running on the same computer causing a port conflict.) You’ll also need the ReplayPC 0.4.0 package (the main page comes up with a link to 0.3.0 but ignore that and dig for the 0.4.0 version). Finally, you’ll need the C0237fi.rid file with the codes for the DTA.

  1. Pull apart current setup and insert stupid DTA inline between cable in from street and ReplayTV; attach flasher that came with ReplayTV (hopefully you can find it) and mount the business end on the dot on the front of the DTA.

  2. Power up DTA, confirm that TV shows message from stupid DTA – something about service interruption – just means not yet authorized.
  3. Go online to activate stupid DTA. When this didn’t work on second go around because web site was not updated to reflect the new hardware after the exhcange, I used the telephone activation instead. The number for that is: 800.865.4935 (not the one listed in the instruction book).
  4. Confirm that DTA receives activation and that ReplayTV can view the output of the DTA when ReplayTV is tuned to Channel 3 (it should take less than 5 minutes, regardless of the fact that Comcast sometimes says 45 minutes, sometimes 15, and sometimes 60 minutes).
  5. Now on the PC running WiRNS and httpfs, put the RID file in the same directory as httpfs. Run the following command (even if the RTV software version is 530511440, use 520411140 in command):
    httpfs -a -s 520411140 writefile -f C0237fi.rid /Photo/C0237fi.rid
  6. Temporarily change both DNS servers on the ReplayTV to the computer you have running WiRNS (write down what it was so you can change it back).
  7. Edit WiRNS\shellcmds file and add a new line at the top:
    cp -f /name/storage/Photo/C0237fi.rid /name/system/user/mirror/sys-setup-gaea/data/irCodeset/C0237fi.rid
  8. With WiRNS running on the PC, force a net connect on the ReplayTV by doing 2-4-3-Zones-7; it will connect to your PC and run the shell command you entered in step 7
  9. Modify your ReplayTV’s ANT input connection detail to a Digital Cable Box and pick Comcast from the list of providers. Then choose brand of “other” for the cable box. Search for Pace brand in the list and select it. Select 0237 that comes up but before continuing, hit the zones button on the remote. On the screen that comes up, change the two values that are defaulted to “0200” to be “0400” instead. Finish up the Input change and let ReplayTV download the new guide info. (Changing the delay values prevents duplicate digits from being dropped – if you didn’t make the change, channel 33 would end up simply channel 3, 44 would be 4, etc..)
  10. Edit WiRNS\shellcmds again to remove the line you added in step 7 and you can stop WiRNS now.
  11. Adjust channel lineup with add/remove channels as necessary.
  12. Repeat for second ReplayTV.

I know when you look at the steps, you are wondering why it took 3 days. Comcast is most of the reason. Also, having never used ReplayPC, I didn’t know about the httpfs program and it took a while to aggregate info together. But hopefully, for anyone still reading at this point, the steps above will turn my 3 days into something like 3 hours for you. Let me know if anyone tries these steps and how it goes for you.

And for anyone wondering why I would stick with Comcast instead of going to a provider that doesn’t require a STB for even basic cable, apparently Comcast is one of the last to require STBs for basic. Hard to believe. My only other choices are Verizon or satellite and both of them require STBs for basic cable.

5 Responses to “Comcast DTA just as bad as expected”

  1. beej9 says:

    Wow. My DTAs are on their way from Comcast. Oh joy. I have one TiVo (Series 1 hacked) and a couple VCRs — now I have to locate the IR repeaters and see if I can get them to work…

  2. Ken says:

    Unlikely that your IR repeaters will work. The DTA uses a new kind of IR coding that wasn’t around when any of your devices manufactured. Your only shot is the TiVo – if TiVo is still sending out updates to Series 1 units, that is.

  3. Ken says:

    Yesterday, one of the 2 DTAs had lost it’s knowledge about what stations I had. It had dropped me down to just the broadcast stations. Cycling power didn’t work. I had to call and talk to the activation center again and they sent out another signal to activate it. I’m fearing that this is going to be a routine procedure for me.

  4. [...] had previously used WiRNS to upload new IR blaster info to both ReplayTVs. I decided to get the latest version though, and that seemed to step on some toes [...]

  5. [...] much as I complain about Comcast, they do get some things right. My bundle was up earlier this year so I signed up for a new one [...]

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