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Cable television is a system of distributing television programs to paying subscribers via radio frequency (RF) signals transmitted through coaxial cables or light pulses through fiber-optic cables. This contrasts with traditional broadcast television, in which the television signal is transmitted over the air by radio waves and received by a television antenna attached to the television. FM radio programming, high-speed Internet, telephone service, and similar non-television services may also be provided through these cables.
The abbreviation CATV is often used for cable television. It originally stood for Community Access Television or Community Antenna Television, from cable television's origins in 1948: in areas where over-the-air reception was limited by distance from transmitters or mountainous terrain, large "community antennas" were constructed, and cable was run from them to individual homes. The origins of cable broadcasting are even older as radio programming was distributed by cable in some European cities as far back as 1924.
In order to receive cable television at a given location, cable distribution lines must be available on the local utility poles or underground utility lines. Coaxial cable brings the signal to the customer's building through a service drop, an overhead or underground cable. If the subscriber's building does not have a cable service drop, the cable company will install one. The standard cable used in the U.S. is RG-6, which has a 75 ohm impedance, and connects with a type F connector.
The cable company's portion of the wiring usually ends at a distribution box on the building exterior, and built-in cable wiring in the walls usually distributes the signal to jacks in different rooms to which televisions are connected. Multiple cables to different rooms are split off the incoming cable with a small device called a splitter.
There are two standards for cable television; older analog cable, and newer digital cable which is capable of carrying high definition signals used by newer digital HDTV televisions. Many cable companies have upgraded to digital cable infrastructures since it was first introduced in the late 1990s. To receive digital cable, most television sets require a digital television adapter (set-top box or cable converter box) supplied by the cable provider. A cable from the jack in the wall is attached to the input of the box, and an output cable from the box is attached to the "Antenna In" or "RF In" connector on the back of the television. Different converter boxes are required for newer digital high definition televisions and older legacy analog televisions. The box must be "activated" by a signal from the cable company before use.
Most American television sets are "cable-ready" and have a television tuner capable of receiving older analog cable television. The cable from the wall is attached directly to the "Antenna In" connector on the back of the television.
Principle of operation
In the most common system, multiple television channels (as many as 500, although this varies depending on the provider's available channel capacity) are distributed to subscriber residences through a coaxial cable, which comes from a trunkline supported on utility poles originating at the cable company's local distribution facility, called the headend. Multiple channels are transmitted through the cable by a technique called frequency division multiplexing. At the headend, each television channel is translated to a different frequency. By giving each channel a different frequency "slot" on the cable, the separate television signals do not interfere. At the subscriber's residence, either the subscriber's television or a set-top box provided by the cable company translates the desired channel back to its original frequency (baseband), and it is displayed on-screen. Due to widespread cable theft in earlier analog systems, the signals are encrypted on modern digital cable systems, and the set-top box must be activated by an activation code sent by the cable company before it will function, which is only sent after the subscriber signs up. There are also usually "upstream" channels on the cable, to send data from the customer box to the cable headend, for advanced features such as requesting pay-per-view shows, cable internet access, and cable telephone service. The "downstream" channels occupy a band of frequencies from approximately 50 MHz to 1 GHz, while the "upstream" channels occupy frequencies of 5 to 42 MHz. Subscribers pay with a monthly fee. Subscribers can choose from several levels of service, with "premium" packages including more channels but costing a higher rate.
At the local headend, the feed signals from the individual television channels are received by dish antennas from communication satellites. Additional local channels, such as local broadcast television stations, educational channels from local colleges, and community access channels devoted to local governments (PEG channels) are usually included on the cable service. Commercial advertisements for local business are also inserted in the programming at the headend (the individual channels, which are distributed nationally, also have their own nationally oriented commercials).
Modern cable systems are large, with a single network and headend often serving an entire metropolitan area or county. Most systems use hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) distribution; this means the trunklines that carry the signal from the headend to local neighborhoods are optical fiber to provide greater bandwidth and also extra capacity for future expansion. At the headend, the radio frequency electrical signal carrying all the channels is modulated on a light beam and sent through the fiber. The fiber trunkline goes to several distribution hubs, from which multiple fibers fan out to carry the signal to boxes called optical nodes in local communities. At the optical node, the light beam from the fiber is translated back to an electrical signal and carried by coaxial cable distribution lines on utility poles, from which cables branch out to subscriber residences.
Deployments by country
Cable television is mostly available in North America, Europe, Australia and East Asia, and less so in South America and the Middle East. Cable television has had little success in Africa, as it is not cost-effective to lay cables in sparsely populated areas. So-called "wireless cable" or microwave-based systems are used instead.
Other cable-based services
Coaxial cables are capable of bi-directional carriage of signals as well as the transmission of large amounts of data. Cable television signals use only a portion of the bandwidth available over coaxial lines. This leaves plenty of space available for other digital services such as cable internet, cable telephony and wireless services, using both unlicensed and licensed spectrum.
Broadband internet access is achieved over coaxial cable by using cable modems to convert the network data into a type of digital signal that can be transferred over coaxial cable. One problem with some cable systems is the older amplifiers placed along the cable routes are unidirectional thus in order to allow for uploading of data the customer would need to use an analog telephone modem to provide for the upstream connection. This limited the upstream speed to 31.2k and prevented the always-on convenience broadband internet typically provides. Many large cable systems have upgraded or are upgrading their equipment to allow for bi-directional signals, thus allowing for greater upload speed and always-on convenience, though these upgrades are expensive.
In North America, Australia and Europe, many cable operators have already introduced cable telephone service, which operates just like existing fixed line operators. This service involves installing a special telephone interface at the customer's premises that converts the analog signals from the customer's in-home wiring into a digital signal, which is then sent on the local loop (replacing the analog last mile, or plain old telephone service (POTS)) to the company's switching center, where it is connected to the public switched telephone network (PSTN). The biggest obstacle to cable telephone service is the need for nearly 100% reliable service for emergency calls. One of the standards available for digital cable telephony, PacketCable, seems to be the most promising and able to work with the Quality of Service (QOS) demands of traditional analog plain old telephone service (POTS) service. The biggest advantage to digital cable telephone service is similar to the advantage of digital cable, namely that data can be compressed, resulting in much less bandwidth used than a dedicated analog circuit-switched service. Other advantages include better voice quality and integration to a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) network providing cheap or unlimited nationwide and international calling. In many cases, digital cable telephone service is separate from cable modem service being offered by many cable companies and does not rely on Internet Protocol (IP) traffic or the Internet.
Beginning in 2004 in the United States, the traditional cable television providers and traditional telecommunication companies increasingly compete in providing voice, video and data services to residences. The combination of television, telephone and Internet access is commonly called "triple play", regardless of whether CATV or telcos offer it.
More recently, several U.S. cable operators have begun offering wireless services to their subscribers. Most notably was the September 2008 launch of Optimum Wi-Fi by Cablevision. This service is made available, at no additional cost, to Optimum Broadband subscribers, and is available at over 14,000 locations across Long Island, New York, and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. Cablevision has reported a double digit reduction in subscriber churn since launching Optimum Wi-Fi, even as Verizon has rolled out FiOS, a competitive residential broadband service in the Cablevision footprint. Other Tier 1 cable operators, including Comcast, have announced trials of a similar service in sections of the Northeastern United States.
During the 1980s, in the United States, mandated regulations not unlike public, educational, and government access (PEG) channels created the beginning of the cable-originated live television program that evolved into what is known today in the 2010s where many cable networks provide live cable-only broadcasts of many varieties, cable-only produced television movies and miniseries. Various live local programs with local interests were rapidly being created all over the United States in most major television markets in the early 1980s. One of the first was in Columbus, Ohio where Richard Sillman became the nation's youngest cable television Director at age 16.
With the development of the internet, by the late 1990s and early 2000, much of that regulation had been replaced where newer industry technologies developed, offering viewers alternate choices for local events and programming leading to what is today, that being digital cable, Internet and telephone being offered to consumers, bundled, by 2010.
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