Mass Media & Technology

C&W/NTL/Telewest Box Revival

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

SE
settopboxing
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.


Yeah, I guess they had a bunch of old/refurb boxes, I've wondered how they went about that though, I have some boxes here which have newer logos than they should have. One, for example, is a Virgin box (according to the front face logo) but the underside had a stack of serial number/spec stickers on the bottom, the topmost of which was unbranded, but the numerous ones underneath it have NTL logos. I'm not entirely sure why they decided they needed to keep replacing that sticker as nothing much about it seemed to differ between the extra stickers they put over the top of the first, except the last one not having an NTL logo.

I feel like I may have heard something about there being a yellow card at some point, but nothing more about it, something I must've read on a forum somewhere. I assume they must still be out there, somewhere, even if there's only a few of them, but I've never even seen a picture.

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.


Cheers! I'm not using TSDuck at the moment as I had some issues trying to get it installed, I'm using OpenCaster at the moment, but I hear TSDuck is better so if I have any issues I might go back to trying to install it. Thanks for the suggestion though, it's a handy second option if I get stuck. I am using ffmpeg for video encoding although I'm not doing live video right now, I'm just generating a TS that broadcasts over an over in a loop. That does have some minor issues, like the clock never changes, it's perpetually 5pm on Friday 14th August, but the boxes don't seem to mind and it gives me a non-moving target to write the EPG data for.

The thing with Sky isn't so much the actual data as the data rate. Because their boxes will only accept two (quite high) symbols/second it requires a higher spec radio. I do have such a radio but it's a bit awkward to use as it's miniPCIe so I can't easily connect it to my transmission virtual machine. I can use it in a laptop but the best laptop I have that it'll go in is pretty old so data rates are an issue, I can use it in my desktop (via an adapter) but that requires booting natively into Linux. So it's doable but much less convenient. I might be able to stretch the USB radio I have far enough out of spec to just about manage to satisfy a Digibox's symbol rate requirements, but I'm not confident it'll manage it as it's limited by USB 2.0 bandwidth. If they hadn't had the Digibox firmware restricted to two specific and quite high symbol rates then it would've been much easier, I could've done it the same as analogue/ONdigital/this cable stuff.

Mute posted:
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.

--snip--

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.

--snip--

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

--snip--

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.

--snip--

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.


Yeah, the Telewest/C&W thing would tally with what I thought I'd heard in the past, so I guess that makes sense. It's kinda handy in a way though as it means a lot of the old network ID/region lists specify whether a region was pure NTL, ex-Telewest, or ex-C&W. Not that I've yet written down which of my boxes are which type, but it might be useful to know in future. Incidentally, several boxes have the net ID "99999" which I gather means they've been reset at some point, it seems to work if I target my transmissions for net ID 99999 so it's a literal ID and not just a non-functional placeholder, does make it difficult (impossible?) to establish exactly where they came from though.

(Edit: Not necessarily impossible to narrow down where they might have come from as the firmware versions, in particular the newer (Virgin) ones, seem to have stuff like BROM or KNOW in them, so it's fairly obvious which bit of the network they were probably intended to be used on.)

The boxes as far as I can see (not yet having done any investigative digging) do seem to be very similar across the board, they're all similarly styled, I believe most of them use very similar internals architecturally (other than the modems, as you mention). One of my boxes is more modern than the rest and it has a newer engineering menu, not like the blue screenshots I've posted above, but a sort of pastel purple menu, which is what I saw on the Samsung box I used to have. Given that, I assume they were all either based heavily on the same code, regardless of manufacturer, or almost identical other than some minor manufacturer-specific tweaks. Sky, in comparison, seems to have more diversity in the underlying architectural stuff, it doesn't seem to matter what they run underneath as long as the Sky EPG can sit on top of OpenTV. Since there's no equivalent to engineering mode on a Sky box though it's a bit difficult to compare in the same way you can on the cable boxes, there's no obvious signs of a UI or anything that don't involve booting into the EPG, which looks identical on all boxes regardless of what's underneath (as is the ideal point of middleware, of course).

I don't know much about the differences between DAVIC and DOCSIS, it's not something I've looked much into yet, but thankfully it seems not to have any bearing on the DVB-C portion of their functionality. As I hinted at earlier in the thread, it would be neat to be able to get that functionality up and running too, but it's a bit beyond me at the moment and I think it would require a more complex radio setup as it'll need to operate on multiple frequencies and in presumably in duplex. Does make sense that they would've had to have kept both systems running for customers though, unless they were going to replace all the set top boxes of a given system type, which I suppose they've kinda done now that they've consolidated things and no longer support these old boxes. I guess it was bound to happen eventually, even if it took an entire new communications standard. Not sure what the current system uses though, I assume DOCSIS, as that's more widely used? They operate from Bromley and Knowlsey now, right? Those would've been the C&W and Telewest headends according to Wikipedia, so those would be the DOCSIS systems? Must've been pretty awkward before the integration though, operating two different networks like that, it's funny you mention the channel numbers not even being the same, that seems like a relatively simple thing to fix.

The boxes all seem to respond to the signal I'm currently generating in some way or another, such as being able to get the current time via the TDT packets, but not necessarily the channel names and stuff like that. So it seems the very basics of "here is a DVB-C transmission with your network ID" as pretty universal at least, but not necessarily the position and format of some of the data in it. I'm unsure at the moment whether that's an architectural difference or whether some are just more tolerant than others in the sense that they'll fall back to getting data from another portion of the stream or more generously interpret data that isn't quite what it should be.

Good bit of history though, thanks for that. Smile
Last edited by settopboxing on 16 August 2020 2:24pm
RE
Rexogamer London London
Sorry if these are a little off topic but two questions:
- Did C&W/NTL ever make their own branded omniboxes? Only ever seen NYNEX or Virgin ones in my area (Bromley)
- Does anyone have any proof of the claim that NTL had different channel numbers on the Bromley/Langley networks?

Thanks in advance! As others have said, this is a very interesting thread (and honestly one I'm glad to see as I have a considerable interest in cable despite never having it).
Arqiva, just switch to DVB-T2 already...
NW
nwtv2003 Granada North West Today
Whilst I can’t answer your first question, I can certainly give some detail to your second. Ex C&W customers had their channels beginning at 001, where as NTL customers had theirs at 101. C&W almost never bothered to change or rearrange their channel numbers when new services came along or others closed. In 2002 when NTL acquired a high number of new channels, then they started to use the 800 and 900 channel numbers, which I believe was also the case on the Langley based systems. For instance Sky One for Ex-C&W customers was on Channel 30, but Langley areas had it on a 3 digit number such as 109 for example. Sky Two ended up on Channel 930 on both platforms. It only took until about 2006 until NTL got the channels into a proper order across both of their platforms. This I think was to match Telewest’s channel line up, in anticipation of the merger.
steve
steviegTVreturns

19 days later

MR
mrwish West Country (East) Midlands Today
Interesting! Not sure when I'll be able to do it, but I will try and get a mux-dump of the "home" DVB-C multiplex when I next see my parents (ex-NTL Stafford network area: Frequency: 826.250MHz - S/R: 6.887 - NID: 00015). They used to have cable and the connection to the network was seemingly never disconnected when they left a few years ago.

Some of the stuff on the network is actually unencrypted (The main five channels in SD, plus a couple of others and some Virgin Media static info screen channels), but pretty much everything is MPEG4 these days so you'll have to generate your own multiplexes containing MPEG2 for the old boxes like you have otherwise for your OnDigital ones etc.

The transmissions do have standard EIT schedule data transmitted (see: https://digitalbitrate.com/dtv.php?mux=C078&pid=2703&live=209&sec=0&lang=en ) but only a limited amount. I've had a look at the code of TVHeadend, which has an EPG grabber for Virgin Media cable. It looks like the full EPG is EIT data but all on a single PID - 700, I guess a little like Freesat but without the Huffman encoding. Presumably this is on the home transponder.

Here's some analysis of the current home transponder (the network here is one of the Liverpool ones I think) - https://digitalbitrate.com/dtv.php?mux=C070&liste=1&live=209&lang=en

PID 700 with the EPG is probably hidden in there somewhere. I will get a mux-dump when I next have a chance Smile


If you could that'd be super useful, cheers! It may not necessarily require all of the data in order to get the box to do its thing, but I suspect it's looking for quite specific stuff in quite specific places (as it's only designed to work with NTL/Virgin, so they'd be in full control of the infrastructure), so getting an idea of what the real thing looks like seems like it'd be fairly important.

I'll take a look at the TVHeadend stuff, thanks for the tip, it might give me some idea of the format of the EITs and how standard it is. I still don't know quite how to get the box to accept the mux I'm transmitting so I may not be able to test if what I give it is working properly, but it all helps. When enough right pieces are there, I'm hoping the rest should "just work" as long as it's fairly standard DVB stuff. Could be handy to know that PID too, if things do have to be in precisely the right place, to match some specifically hardcoded firmware, that's all good info.

Having said that, I wonder if there's any region/network-specific IDs and stuff which have to match the box. As I understand it you can't just pick up one of these boxes and take it anywhere you like, but I don't know if that's a measure enforced by the back end, or the box, or the card. I should probably look at these boxes and figure out where they came from, just in case.

Since I'm here, a selection of screenshots of the DiTV1000 that does boot to the EPG without a feed, for those of a nostalgic disposition:

*
*
*
*
*
*
*

The version number is "P1.Build 53.25h.CR1", so it's a classic, effectively a slightly updated version of the initial turn of the century EPG software. The build date is 17 April 2003, so as far as I can tell it must've been a London area box which was never updated to CR2?

Edit: Forgot to mention, you'll note the clock is still roughly correct. It's some minutes out, but it's managed to retain the correct date and more or less the correct time. Impressive, really, several other boxes seem to have managed the same. As I don't know which regions these boxes came from or when they were last used I'm not sure how long they've been sitting around, but I've had them for a while myself.


Not ex-NTL Stafford, but I’ve just moved to Gloucestershire, and the temporary accommodation I’m in has a pretty old-looking Telewest wall plate (which seems to be connected on the outside to the VM cable).

Provided it is connected I will try to get you a home multiplex dump from the VM Cheltenham & Gloucester (ex. Telewest/Cotswold Cable) network in the next couple of days. Smile
PE
Pete Founding member North Reporting Scotland
Not ex-NTL Stafford, but I’ve just moved to Gloucestershire, and the temporary accommodation I’m in has a pretty old-looking Telewest wall plate (which seems to be connected on the outside to the VM cable).


A friend of mine had a flat which still had a wallbox branded with the final telewest logo. If she'd been moving out these days I'd have totally got the appropriate screwdriver and swapped it for my unbranded one. Another lost opportunity.
ELM 2011: I am sick of been persicuted by you immature TV Forumers!
SE
settopboxing
Interesting! Not sure when I'll be able to do it, but I will try and get a mux-dump of the "home" DVB-C multiplex when I next see my parents (ex-NTL Stafford network area: Frequency: 826.250MHz - S/R: 6.887 - NID: 00015). They used to have cable and the connection to the network was seemingly never disconnected when they left a few years ago.

Some of the stuff on the network is actually unencrypted (The main five channels in SD, plus a couple of others and some Virgin Media static info screen channels), but pretty much everything is MPEG4 these days so you'll have to generate your own multiplexes containing MPEG2 for the old boxes like you have otherwise for your OnDigital ones etc.

The transmissions do have standard EIT schedule data transmitted (see: https://digitalbitrate.com/dtv.php?mux=C078&pid=2703&live=209&sec=0&lang=en ) but only a limited amount. I've had a look at the code of TVHeadend, which has an EPG grabber for Virgin Media cable. It looks like the full EPG is EIT data but all on a single PID - 700, I guess a little like Freesat but without the Huffman encoding. Presumably this is on the home transponder.

Here's some analysis of the current home transponder (the network here is one of the Liverpool ones I think) - https://digitalbitrate.com/dtv.php?mux=C070&liste=1&live=209&lang=en

PID 700 with the EPG is probably hidden in there somewhere. I will get a mux-dump when I next have a chance Smile


If you could that'd be super useful, cheers! It may not necessarily require all of the data in order to get the box to do its thing, but I suspect it's looking for quite specific stuff in quite specific places (as it's only designed to work with NTL/Virgin, so they'd be in full control of the infrastructure), so getting an idea of what the real thing looks like seems like it'd be fairly important.

I'll take a look at the TVHeadend stuff, thanks for the tip, it might give me some idea of the format of the EITs and how standard it is. I still don't know quite how to get the box to accept the mux I'm transmitting so I may not be able to test if what I give it is working properly, but it all helps. When enough right pieces are there, I'm hoping the rest should "just work" as long as it's fairly standard DVB stuff. Could be handy to know that PID too, if things do have to be in precisely the right place, to match some specifically hardcoded firmware, that's all good info.

Having said that, I wonder if there's any region/network-specific IDs and stuff which have to match the box. As I understand it you can't just pick up one of these boxes and take it anywhere you like, but I don't know if that's a measure enforced by the back end, or the box, or the card. I should probably look at these boxes and figure out where they came from, just in case.

Since I'm here, a selection of screenshots of the DiTV1000 that does boot to the EPG without a feed, for those of a nostalgic disposition:

*
*
*
*
*
*
*

The version number is "P1.Build 53.25h.CR1", so it's a classic, effectively a slightly updated version of the initial turn of the century EPG software. The build date is 17 April 2003, so as far as I can tell it must've been a London area box which was never updated to CR2?

Edit: Forgot to mention, you'll note the clock is still roughly correct. It's some minutes out, but it's managed to retain the correct date and more or less the correct time. Impressive, really, several other boxes seem to have managed the same. As I don't know which regions these boxes came from or when they were last used I'm not sure how long they've been sitting around, but I've had them for a while myself.


Not ex-NTL Stafford, but I’ve just moved to Gloucestershire, and the temporary accommodation I’m in has a pretty old-looking Telewest wall plate (which seems to be connected on the outside to the VM cable).

Provided it is connected I will try to get you a home multiplex dump from the VM Cheltenham & Gloucester (ex. Telewest/Cotswold Cable) network in the next couple of days. Smile


No worries if it's not connected, but if you could, that'd be interesting, thanks! Doesn't need to be terribly long, just enough to get some of the technical basics. I don't know what the compatibility is like with old boxes these days, as I gather they're unsupported now, but it might give a rough idea of what the system looked like somewhat recently.

Also I should say I've not abandoned this thread, I've just become distracted working on some boxes rather less ground-based. Wink
MR
mrwish West Country (East) Midlands Today
It’s connected! 651MHz 6.952 256QAM / NID: 40971 Cheltenham 2.

TVHeadend is scanning in all of the cable multiplexes happily with the PCTV290e USB DVB-T2/C tuner stick I’ve had for years.

I will do a short muxdump of the 651MHz home transponder for you. Smile
MR
mrwish West Country (East) Midlands Today
Here's the dump of the transport stream. It's 60 seconds-worth of data. Hopefully will be useful! -

https://fil.email/rgiRNLPr
SE
settopboxing
Here's the dump of the transport stream. It's 60 seconds-worth of data. Hopefully will be useful! -

https://fil.email/rgiRNLPr


Much appreciated, thanks! As I noted above I've been a little distracted with "other types of receivers" of late, but I'll definitely have a look at this dump to see if I can use it to better understand the cable stuff. There's a lot of general DVB stuff I've learnt recently, so that's helping too, as I hop between the transmission media (cable, aerial, dish) I'm picking up stuff that'll help me with the others, so when I get back around to cable I should be able to put the knowledge to better use.

Still flailing in the almost-dark with all this DVB and MPEG stuff, but bit by bit, it's coming together. Hope to have more interesting things to report in the near future!
Last edited by settopboxing on 7 September 2020 6:05pm
JO
Joe
I don’t think I’ve posted in this thread yet but apologies if I have!

I have no interest in doing this stuff, but I’m fascinated reading about it, and especially in seeing the screenshots. It’s been great to learn a little more about the history of the UK’s cable networks etc. Thanks for the interesting conversation!
SE
settopboxing
Joe posted:
I don’t think I’ve posted in this thread yet but apologies if I have!

I have no interest in doing this stuff, but I’m fascinated reading about it, and especially in seeing the screenshots. It’s been great to learn a little more about the history of the UK’s cable networks etc. Thanks for the interesting conversation!


No problem, that's the idea!

The broadcasters don't seem to care much (or if they do then at least not often publicly), and to most people it just becomes landfill of no value other than maybe scrap metal, so that's exactly what I want to do - make sure it doesn't just disappear into landfill, both physically and in terms of records like screenshots, videos, etc of boxes in action, even if the original services are gone.

Glad you're enjoying the screenshots, hope I can bring more soon!
MR
mrwish West Country (East) Midlands Today
The transmissions do have standard EIT schedule data transmitted (see: https://digitalbitrate.com/dtv.php?mux=C078&pid=2703&live=209&sec=0&lang=en ) but only a limited amount. I've had a look at the code of TVHeadend, which has an EPG grabber for Virgin Media cable. It looks like the full EPG is EIT data but all on a single PID - 700, I guess a little like Freesat but without the Huffman encoding. Presumably this is on the home transponder.

Here's some analysis of the current home transponder (the network here is one of the Liverpool ones I think) - https://digitalbitrate.com/dtv.php?mux=C070&liste=1&live=209&lang=en

PID 700 with the EPG is probably hidden in there somewhere. I will get a mux-dump when I next have a chance Smile


I did some investigation of my home transponder transport stream recording, and can confirm that PID 700 does contain the extended EPG (at least 5 days), and it's in standard plain EIT format rather than a compressed or proprietary format like Freesat or Sky.

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