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Fixing CableCARD

Remember the CableCARD? This PC-card like device is plugged into TV sets and DVRs to allow one-way access to encrypted digital video on cable systems.

A few years ago many digital TV sets included a slot for a CableCARD, but when I was looking for a flat screen TV last year none of the models I checked had a CableCARD slot.

On Wednesday the FCC adopted a Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 10-61) [PDF] proposing new rules to make CableCARDs more useful until a successor solution becomes effective. The FCC notes that CableCARD customers often pay higher prices than customers using a leased set-top box from the cable provider.

The FCC is proposing rules that would require equivalent prices be charged to CableCARDs for using in cable-operator-provided set-top boxes and in retail devices and require CableCARD billing to be more transparent. They would also simplify the CableCARD installation process and require cable operators to offer their subscribers CableCARDs that can tune multiple streams. Anyone attempting to use a CableCARD with a PC based Media Center knows that finding hardware certified to work with CableCARDs is difficult, if not impossible. The FCC's proposed rules would streamline the CableCARD device certification process.

The Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) suggests modifying the interface requirements for high-definition set-top boxes (STBs). STBs are currently required to provide an IEEE 1394 ("Firewire") interface. The proposed rules would give manufacturers greater choice in STB interfaces, allowing substitution of the IEEE 1394 interface with an Ethernet interface, Wi-Fi connectivity, or a USB 3.0 interface on all high-definition STBs. Cable providers would be required to enable bidirectional communications over these interfaces. At a minimum, they should be able to receive remote-control commands from a connected device. The devices would have to deliver video in an industry standard format that would allow them to be displayed by devices manufactured by unaffiliated manufacturers.

While this proceeding focuses on subscription cable TV services, it also seeks comment on proposed rules to transition cable systems to all-digital. I'd recommend the FCC consider requiring cable companies to offer basic cable services in ClearQAM so that they can be received on DTV sets without the need for a CableCARD or STB. Since most cable subscribers also pay for "extended basic" service, making these available without a CableCARD or STB, relying on traps to remove the channels if subscribers did not pay for them, would make it easier to drop analog channels from cable systems. Ideally cable companies would also provide PSIP compatible with ClearQAM TV tuners to make it easier for viewers to identify digital channels.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.