Mass Media & Technology

C&W/NTL/Telewest Box Revival

The quest to get old cable boxes working like they used to again

SE
settopboxing
Mute posted:
I know a little bit about how the cable networks work. Probably not enough to help you get the boxes working, but there may be a few interesting bits I can still remember.


Thanks for the input Smile

Mute posted:
There were (and still are) differences between the way that the three cable networks actually worked. Cable and Wireless and Telewest were similar, but the ntl network had some differences in the way the data in the DVB-C transport streams was structured. These differences are still in place today with Virgin Media sending slightly different signals to regions that were originally ntl areas. If you have boxes from different regions then you may find that a signal that works with one may not work with another.


Yeah, I was aware they were different (moreso NTL from CWC/TW) though I don't know exactly how different. I know they started out with different transmission methods (DAVIC vs DOCSIS) but not the extent to which that plays a part. I'm not terribly surprised that they're still different even now, but it's interesting to hear it confirmed. As it stands I think most of that old gear is obsolete or soon to be, so perhaps that'll stop being relevant (for current customers) before long.

Mute posted:
You mentioned that one of the boxes was running CR1, this was an early version of the software used by ntl. It was quite basic and lacked interactive functionality (that came in CR2). If you've been able to get this box to boot it's probably because it's not got any of the more advanced features that came in later versions of the software.

The software that ran on these boxes in later years was based on the Liberate middleware platform. I believe that large parts of the UI were actually web based, running in the Liberate browser. Whilst some parts of the EPG application would have been in the software running on the box, some parts of the UI may have been loaded from servers on the network. I know that some data relating to the Liberate platform is broadcast via the DVC-C transport streams. I'm not sure what this data was used for (it may have been something like the configuration data used to build the home menu), but you may find that some of the boxes either wont boot or wont work correctly without this data.


I have noticed a couple of boxes (Telewest, running Virgin firmware) seem reluctant to boot, despite being given the same signal that some of the others (including other Virgin firmware boxes) seem happy with, that may be playing a part. I mentioned in a previous post that I had got the impression somewhere that some of the EPG was downloaded either at boot or on the fly, but based on my experiences these last couple of days I'm not so sure.

The CR1 box I agree seems less likely to be subject to external dependencies given it doesn't have any interactive features, however I've since discovered I have what appears to be a CR3 box too, which also boots fine, and as pictured above a much newer firmware still with Virgin branding. So I'm unsure if there are some branches of this odd patchwork tree which do have such dependencies or not, as I have three different "eras" of firmware that seem to be capable of standalone operation.

Naturally any downloadable interactive stuff won't work as it'll be absent (since it's likely to be hard to find, unless somebody happened to capture it, which seems somewhat unlikely). It's unfortunate that there will be pieces missing from the experience of using one of these boxes again, but sadly much the same applies to Sky Digital, for the same reasons, games and interactive applications being broadcast-only puts a bit of a cap on how full the experience can be at this point.

It is possible that applications could be created and broadcast once again to these boxes, either cable or satellite (or terrestrial, for that matter, it would be nice to look at MHEG5 for ONdigital use), but that requires that people are interested enough to do so and have the tools at their disposal. Who knows though? It's not entirely outside the realms of reality.

Mute posted:
Virgin Media have been removing the older boxes from their network for a number of years and the last two models of box running Liberate based software were discontinued last month, so it wouldn't surprise me if the infrastructure this TV platform needed was currently in the process of being ripped out of all of the head ends.


I've not been following closely, but I did get that impression, I recall a few years ago I heard they were starting to remove these old SD-only boxes (do they even still broadcast MPEG2 any more now?) so I knew the end couldn't be far away. Frankly I'm surprised Sky haven't done the same.

Still, all the more reason to try and get them working again!

Mute posted:
The boxes got their EPG data from the DVB transport stream, but the amount of data would vary depending on the model of the box and version of software. In the earlier years all of the boxes had a seven day EPG, so a full seven days worth of data was broadcast over the network on all transport streams. As the number of channels increased this was reduced to three days and then to just one day as the older boxes didn't have enough memory to store all the EPG data for all of the channels. The V+ box did support a full 7 day EPG and was the only type of box that used the full EPG data which was only broadcast on one transport stream.


Really shows off how old these boxes are, doesn't it? Not having enough memory to hold a 7-day EPG for all channels. Sure, it all adds up, it's gotta go somewhere, but it's difficult to imagine a modern device with so few resources spare. But hey, 20 years ain't bad service, even if it was a little less than full by the time they were discontinued.
SE
settopboxing
Possibly the final update for today, but just a quick summary of where it stands:

*

NIT is good (this tells the box what channels are available, it sees 5 channels as expected)
TDT is good (this tells the box what time it is, this works, but is currently hardcoded and doesn't update)
EIT ( EPG data) appears to have been found, but it doesn't seem to do anything with it
CAT (conditional access, handles encryption keys) isn't required as no channels are encrypted
PAT (tells the box which streams belong to which channels) doesn't seem to have been found, despite being present and valid, which would probably be why I can't see or hear anything

It's some progress at least, I'm pleased to see some of the boxes cooperating, and hopefully with more refinement and satisfying some more requirements it'll begin to look like a normal functional cable service.
SE
settopboxing
I take it back, one more update - EPG data works!

*

As you can see, the channels are in reverse order for some reason, this is true for channel hopping too, I've no idea why, but that's a problem for another day.
NW
nwtv2003 Granada North West Today
Whilst I’m not good on the technical side of things, I’m really enjoying reading this thread and the efforts being made with the old equipment.

Further to the above post, my understanding was that Cable & Wireless digital networks were built the same with the prospect that both companies would eventually merge and use the same equipment, down to the same Set Top Boxes. But of course, that never happened as NTL bought the consumer division of C&W. Which meant that NTL had 2 separate systems known as Bromley (ex-C&W) and Langley (NTL).

I think it was only about 2006 when they bothered to have the same looking system on both platforms.

I’ve not been a Cable customer for a very long time now (simply because it is not available where I now live and Virgin won’t bother investing) so I’m unsure what the current set up is, or whether Virgin did inherit the messy NTL set up.
steve
steviegTVreturns
SE
settopboxing
Whilst I’m not good on the technical side of things, I’m really enjoying reading this thread and the efforts being made with the old equipment.

Further to the above post, my understanding was that Cable & Wireless digital networks were built the same with the prospect that both companies would eventually merge and use the same equipment, down to the same Set Top Boxes. But of course, that never happened as NTL bought the consumer division of C&W. Which meant that NTL had 2 separate systems known as Bromley (ex-C&W) and Langley (NTL).

I think it was only about 2006 when they bothered to have the same looking system on both platforms.

I’ve not been a Cable customer for a very long time now (simply because it is not available where I now live and Virgin won’t bother investing) so I’m unsure what the current set up is, or whether Virgin did inherit the messy NTL set up.


Glad you're enjoying it, and I hope something good can come of it Smile

I thought I remembered hearing that C&W and Telewest were similar, rather than either of those two and NTL, but I don't remember where I heard that and I've never explicitly looked into it. I'm sure I've probably seen hints which would explain one way or the other during my research but as I've not been looking for that info in particular (yet), there's a lot of stuff (even technical details which would've given it away immediately) that I've either glossed over or forgotten.

Also, since C&W's digital services didn't last all that long before they got acquired, details and (especially) equipment are hard to come by. I'm still not even sure if there were C&W viewing cards, or what they looked like, I have some NTL and Telewest ones but no C&W ones.

The boxes (at least as far as the Pace branded ones I have for each company) do seem to be quite similar, other than the differences in the modems I assume they're all fairly standard inside. I believe they use ARM* CPUs but beyond that I'm not entirely sure of specifics. There are Scientific Atlanta and Samsung boxes, neither of which I currently own, but I'd imagine they're not too dissimilar either - I know the Samsung engineering menu is very similar to the one on the Pace boxes as I used to have one in my collection.

Virgin were effectively NTL at the time they adopted the Virgin branding, so they would've inherited all of the old patchwork infrastructure, from C&W/Telewest and NTL's existing network at the time. As far as I understand it, it was literally just NTL buying up Virgin Mobile and doing a deal to adopt the Virgin brand name for marketing multi-play services, so in essence the Virgin now is pretty much still NTL but with a lick of red paint, albeit with almost 15 more years of network evolution. Things seem to be moving more and more quickly towards cardless boxes, MPEG4, HD video, video delivered via IP networks, and all that modern stuff now though, so as was mentioned previously in the thread it's starting to lose its similarities to the networks as they were 20 years ago.


*Edit: I just took the lid off a box to investigate a rattle and make sure it was nothing metallic before I plugged it in, spotted a chip marked with an SH-3 logo, so they apparently used some Hitachi processors too.
Last edited by settopboxing on 15 August 2020 6:57pm
VM
VMPhil Granada North West Today
I don’t know if this is of any use, but I have a Sony TV which supports DVB-C and have connected my Virgin Media cable directly to it on a couple of occasions. Scanning for channels works and shows them on the EPG, but the only ones I could get any picture on were the BBC channels.
SE
settopboxing
I don’t know if this is of any use, but I have a Sony TV which supports DVB-C and have connected my Virgin Media cable directly to it on a couple of occasions. Scanning for channels works and shows them on the EPG, but the only ones I could get any picture on were the BBC channels.


Yeah, that'd probably make sense, most of Virgin's network is encrypted as far as I know, so you'll only be able to watch other channels with their boxes and a valid viewing card. Some exceptions might apply, such as managing to use an alternative receiver with an appropriate CAM and some jiggery-pokery, but that's straying into no-no land as far as Virgin are concerned, and it's not something I've looked into (but it comes up occasionally when you're looking for certain other technical info).
SE
settopboxing
Not much of an update this evening, but on re-testing I've found that all but two of my boxes will boot to a functional state either on their own or with my signal present. Still unable to correct the channel numbers and lack of video/audio and having some issues with EPG data beyond what I've shown. The CR1 box now seems unable to see my channel names, so I must've changed something it didn't like.

Of the two which don't work, there's one (Telewest) box which is too unstable to run, so I can't tell if that'll boot or not. Bad caps?

The other one (also Telewest) that doesn't work I'm fairly sure seemed to power up the other day (as I was able to establish, or believed I had, that it wasn't accepting my signals). Now it seems to be having some issues and is the reason I'm posting this otherwise uneventful update at all. It's begun presenting me with this neat screen when I attempt to power it up, which I thought was fun enough to share:

*

Edit: It has now booted correctly with my signal. That makes a total of 7 of 8 boxes capable of booting to a UI, spanning C&W/Telewest/NTL/Virgin-branded hardware and firmwares from about 2003 (although barely modified from several years earlier) to about 2013. That's a good sign for being able to work with all of the boxes in some way or another. They do seem to vary somewhat in how much of the data I'm feeding them actually shows up, some of them don't like the NIT, others do, perhaps relating to the discussion of minor differences earlier in the thread. I dunno, need to do more poking, but I suspect that's probably just a few tweaks here and there to resolve the differences. Difficult to tell at the moment as none of them yet function completely enough to watch "TV" on, but it's a start anyway.
Last edited by settopboxing on 15 August 2020 8:43pm
NW
nwtv2003 Granada North West Today
Quote:
Also, since C&W's digital services didn't last all that long before they got acquired, details and (especially) equipment are hard to come by. I'm still not even sure if there were C&W viewing cards, or what they looked like, I have some NTL and Telewest ones but no C&W ones.


Here’s a random one for you, we had NTL Digital installed in December 2000 (we had Analogue with them and C&W and NYNEX prior) and were provided with an NTL branded Pace 1000 box with NTL card. A year later we got a second box installed in my bedroom, same Pace box but branded Cable & Wireless with a C&W viewing card. Whilst I don’t have any photographic evidence all I remember was the card was yellow, and had the white d in a blue circle logo they were using for Digital. The set up/boot screens also had the C&W logo instead of NTL’s.

Even funnier is that C&W whilst installed later for us, was older by default (it looked refurbished) and it lasted about a year longer than the NTL branded Pace box. By the time we swapped we got a Samsung branded NTL box and then a Samsung V Box in place of the C&W box, the performance of the latter I feel is what the Pace boxes should have been when they promoted the benefits of Digital, such as a reliable EPG, Interactive TV etc.
steve
steviegTVreturns
MU
Mute West Country (East) Points West
Here are a few more random recollections based on the last few posts.

Cable and Wireless and ntl built their networks separately from each other, so ended up with very different technology. I recall someone mentioning that Telewest hired the same consultants that Cable and Wireless used and asked them to help them build an identical digital TV network as they were expecting to eventually get taken over by Cable and Wireless.

When ntl acquired the consumer division on Cable and Wireless they ended up with two networks that were quite different, resulting in years of ntl customers on various Internet forums having to identify which of the two networks they were on when discussing issues. ntl did a terrible job of integrating the two networks, they didn't even get around to using the same channel numbering on the two networks, resulting in broadcasters having to advertise two different channel numbers for ntl customers.
The software used on the boxes of the two networks was also very different (resulting in former C+W customers having much better interactive services than those of us on the original ntl network). Eventually the user interface on the software was made to look the same on the two networks, but it was still very different underneath.

I believe that all three networks used boxes from Pace that were very similar, but had some differences, so there were some subtle variations in the model numbers of the boxes. Eventually ntl released a box from Samsung which was the first time the exact same model of box was used on both of their networks, albeit with different software. This first Samsung box was also the first box used on the original ntl network that had a DOCSIS cable modem in it. The ntl Pace boxes all had DAVIC cable modems in them, expect for the last one which actually had a dual standard cable modem that initially used DAVIC but with the intention of activating the DOCSIS modem in a later software update (which they never got round to doing).
Interestingly, Virgin Media would have had to continue operating the DAVIC broadband infrastructure on the network in the original ntl regions up until a couple of years ago in order to keep these older boxes working.

I believe that the engineering menus on all of the boxes are incredibly similar across all of the different models. Even the TiVo boxes have the same style of engineering menu that's accessed in the same way, it's just the V6 boxes that don't

After the disaster that ntl had trying to integrate their two networks it was interesting to see how things went very differently after the merger with Telewest. They seemed to very quickly align the products between the two companies, having mostly the same channel line up, with the same channel numbers and same packages across the whole on the network before they rebranded the company as Virgin Media. They even unified the software architecture on the boxes and video on demand systems fairly quickly.

Not long after the merger they carried out a major upgrade of the head ends (in a project called Next Generation TV) which saw a single super head end feeding the entire network, rather than having separate networks for the three legacy companies, although some technical differences remain.
There was a software update at the time that was needed to make the boxes compatible with the new network. I'm not sure exactly what changed to need this update, but if you're seeing differences in what needs to be fed to a box to get it to work then it might not just be which of the three networks the box came from but also if the box is running software from before or after they switched to the NGTV network.

The rapid changes that have happened to the network in recent years have mostly been due to the older boxes being removed. Whilst I can appreciate the technical nostalgia of getting the boxes to work, especially the ones running software from before the Virgin Media era, they were clearly holding back other technical advancements on the network. I think that all of the digital TV platforms have had problems with having to remain compatible with the oldest and least capable box that is still in use, so it been interesting to see Virgin Media being able to make some big changes (such as channels going HD only and switching SD channels to MPED4) since these older boxes have been removed.
WO
Worzel Anglia (West) Look East (West sub-opt)
Where's Tony Currie when you need him?
OV
Orry Verducci Anglia (West) Look East (West sub-opt)
As others I'm really enjoying seeing the work going in to bringing these old boxes come to life, and I applaud you on your work so far.

It just so happens DVB coding is something I know a lot about, so I might be able to help, not that I know anything about the cable network.

You may already be using it, but if you haven't found it TSDuck is an excellent tool for building and manipulating DVB transport streams. Combined with FFmpeg to encode video you should be able to generate a TS stream in real time with it, which you could feed to the boxes with live video and all the additional data required. You could even receive a TS stream from DTT or satellite, and rewrap it to feed in to the boxes.

As a side note, but I mention it as it's in your first post, you say Sky is quite tricky but in theory it shouldn't be. It should receive any standard DVB-S multiplex which you could tune in via 'Other Channels'. Making channels appear on the EPG is harder as they don't use EIT, but the Sky EPG has been reverse engineered and is used in projects such as TVHeadend to receive the channel lineup and TV guide, so it should be possible to work out how to transmit the EPG from that.

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