Do Cable Subscribers Always Need a Cable Box?

Conversion from analog to digital cable puts a damper on cable ready TVs

If you are a cable TV subscriber, the era of receiving cable without a box has effectively come to an end.

The reason that all your TVs may now require a box, even if you don't subscribe to premium pay channels, is that your cable service has finally gone all-digital and, on top of that, may also be implementing copy-protection (scrambling) on most, or all, its signal feeds going into your home.

Woman watching television

Extra Equipment, Extra Cost

This change not only affects what you need to receive your cable TV programming but also adds extra costs to your monthly cable bill.

  • If you have more than one TV in your home and want them to all be able to access basic cable channels independently, each TV will require that you rent a box from your cable provider.
  • If you have a mix of analog, HD, and 4K Ultra HD TVs in your house, the box provides both a standard-definition analog RF cable output for connection to the analog TV and an HDMI output for connect to higher-definition sets. You can also connect the RF output of the box to an HD or Ultra HD TV, but that option will only supply a down-converted analog cable signal; to access HD, you will need to use the HDMI output.
  • Since digital cable signals usually have copy protection, video recording fans will find it more difficult to save cable TV programs using a DVD Recorder or VCR. This inconvenience means an added expense to rent or buy a cable DVR or TIVO to record TV shows from cable. Also, you usually can't copy those recordings to DVD or VHS.

The Backstory

Although the FCC required most TV stations to convert from analog to digital broadcasting on June 12, 2009, cable providers were not included in this deadline. However, since about 2012, cable services have implemented their own schedule to eliminate analog and non-scrambled cable services.

As a result, if you have an older "cable-ready" TV, that feature may no longer be usable. Since almost all content is now copy-protected and scrambled, to receive even basic cable signals from a service, you need an external box from a cable company.

Analog TV tuners have not been compatible with over-the-air TV broadcast signals since 2009, and although they are still compatible with analog cable signals, if the cable service no longer offers this option, an external box is required.

Alternatives to the Cable Box

If you have increased monthly cable expense due to box rental or any increases in monthly service fees, you can lessen your expense.

  • Instead of having boxes for all your TVs, you can opt to keep the cable on your main TV and consider using an antenna to receive programming on one more of your additional TVs. This option will at least give you access to local channels. However, if you go this route on an older, analog TV, you will need to purchase a DTV converter box to receive programming.
  • If any of your TVs is a Smart TV, you can access movies and TV shows via internet streaming. However, here you may lose access to your local broadcast channels and may also have to watch many of your favorite shows on a delayed basis. Also, although a lot of free internet channels are available, the "big ones" (Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Hulu, SlingTV) each require their own fees. In addition, some channels are only indirectly free, as they may require that you also subscribe to an associated cable or satellite service (FoxNow, NBC, CW, ABC, DisneyNow).

The Bottom Line

As cable service providers continue to convert to all-digital and scrambled service, customers who own older analog, and even newer HD and 4K Ultra TVs, will have to have a box to access basic cable channels.

You may receive a letter or other notification from your cable company that you will need a cable box for each TV in your home to continue to receive cable service.

If the added inconvenience of the cable box or DVR expense is bothersome, consider "cutting the cord" by accessing via over-the-air and/or internet streaming options.

Was this page helpful?