Tom Butts /
08.19.2014 02:09 AM
CableCARD: Acknowledge the Inevitable

Tom Butts

Remember the old SNL sketch in which Chevy Chase announces to the audience that “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead?” I was reminded of that the other day when I read that the House of Representatives, in passing the STELA Act, also included a provision that ended the prohibition against integrated set-top boxes, which if passed by the Senate, could finally kill the often-maligned CableCARD.

The FCC’s valiant attempt to create a retail marketplace for cable set-top boxes, the CableCARD has a storied history in our industry, much of it negative. Efforts to stimulate such a market originated nearly 20 years ago with the passage of the 1996 Communications Act. Over the years, though, these efforts were met with varying responses from outright opposition from the cable industry to consumer indifference. Google Cable- CARD and the words most associated with it include, “failure,” “stalled” and “resistance.” Much of that resistance came from the cable industry, which had numerous reasons for opposing the technology but mainly objected to the thought of losing the monthly rental fees it collects from its subscribers.

Actually we’ve been down this road several times already. Efforts to integrate CableCARDs into digital TVs a decade ago were greeted with lackluster results. In 2006, a year before the FCC issued the ban on integrated set-tops, the New York Times reported that although 6 million CableCARD-ready TV sets had been sold to consumers, only about 170,000—less than 3 percent—were actually using the device, with the rest opting for the traditional cable box. In addition to lack of consumer interest, the technology was hampered by the fact that it was oneway only communications, which limited the ability of cable operators to introduce advanced services such as VOD, pay-perview or even the cable company’s own EPG. And while there has been progress on developing two-way interactivity, many cable operators are advocating a move away from a hardware approach to software (the “Downloadable Conditional Access System”).

In the absence of interest among both cable operators and subscribers, companies are forging their own alliances, as evidenced by an agreement announced in July between Comcast and TiVo to develop a two-way, non-CableCARD security that would allow MSOs to deliver linear TV and VOD to TiVo-integrated Comcast boxes.

Perhaps the demise of the CableCARD was best summed up by Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), who told John Eggerton in sister publication Broadcasting & Cable earlier this month that the ban on integrated set-top boxes “is not close to doing what it said it was going to do,” adding that “the integration ban has cost at least a billion dollars to consumers and operators out there.”

It’s time to move on. In a report to the FCC earlier this year, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said that of the 47 million set-tops supplied by the country’s nine largest MSOs, only about 616,000 are using CableCARDs in the devices. Consumers are getting their digital programming through an increasing variety of methods; witness the popularity of OTT boxes such as Apple TV and Roku. Maybe there was once a need for a retail cable set-top box but that time is gone. The CableCARD has used up all of its lives.

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Posted by: Dean Collins
Fri, 08-29-2014 09:20 AM Report Comment
Bullcrap they created a "true market place" cablecard was hobbled from day one and in the rare instances where you could manage to find someone in TWC who knew what you were talking about you were only allowed a subsection of what you could get with a cablebox. You like the politicians who took bribes may consider that a "true market place alternative" .....but I don't.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 08-29-2014 12:06 PM Report Comment
TiVo Premier DVRs require CableCARDs to interface with cable providers, in my case Comcast. I sure hope my two TiVos don't become paperweights.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 08-29-2014 01:20 PM Report Comment
“the integration ban has cost at least a billion dollars to consumers and operators out there.” - Wow. If this little screw up wastes a billion, just imagine what harm regulatory stupidity is doing to our economy. That other Tom was right about that government being best that governs least.
Posted by: Anonymous
Sun, 09-07-2014 02:46 AM Report Comment
Cable companies hobbled Cablecard to protect their investment in cable boxes and to prevent the loss of rental income. That move however, will bite the cable companies as consumers tired of rental fees and lousy hardware cut the cord. I have Comcast and if I was the designer of any one of the cable boxes they rent, I quit my job in embarrassment.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 09-19-2014 08:08 PM Report Comment
The reason CableCARD sucks is because the cable operators designed it that way. CableCARD is their technology, not the FCC's. The reason it's one-way and limited? Because they designed it that way. The reason consumer interest is low? Because the operators make it so very difficult to install and use. Cable companies complaining about CableCARD is like Monsanto complaining about GMO foods. It’s ridiculous. The INTENT of the FCC rule was smart - create a technology that fostered an innovative, competitive retail market of devices that free consumers from the shackles of operator set tops that have to be leased to the tune of $10-$20 a month, month after month. The WAY the cable industry chose to implement the rule was via CableCARD, which was designed by the cable industry from the start to fail. Let's get back to the FCC's INTENT and come up with a solution before Congress throws out what little we as consumers have to hold on to.

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