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CableCARDs - A Primer

by October 11, 2004

You probably keep hearing about CableCARD technology (also called "Digital Cable Ready") - or perhaps you've never heard of it. In either case, there's good news for you as a consumer. After fighting it for almost ten years, the cable-TV industry is now subject to a Federal Communication Commission (FCC) mandate that states that all providers must offer CableCARDs as of July 1, 2004. CableCARD is a PCMCIA Type II card (like the cards you put into laptops for network or wireless access that serves as an interface between third party tuners and the cable company. CableCARD slots are appearing on most new digital HDTVs (units with built-in digital tuners.)

Pricing

While most set-top boxes cost about $8-13/month to lease, CableCARDs cost around $1.50 - $3/month*. That's most likely a savings to both the cable company as well as the consumer considering how much money goes into producing and maintaining the set-top boxes. Installation charges do exist, however (especially since this is a new technology) and run anywhere from $25-$45*.

Where the cable companies do not save money is through the loss of an ability to charge for on-demand services like Pay-Per-View. For this reason alone they may attempt to dissuade you from acquiring CableCARD service. Our hope is that in an effort to reacquire consumer on-demand services, the companies quickly negotiate two-way CableCARD technology and specifications so we can finally be free of poor-quality set-top boxes.

*Note: There are a few notable exceptions (mostly in smaller markets) that charge more money than this - if you are unfortunate enough to be a customer of those companies you may want to seriously consider satellite programming in an effort to drive those markets down in price.

The Technology

CableCARD integration provides portability for third party digital tuners and recording devices. If for example, a consumer purchases a set-top box or an integrated TV in Florida and then moves to South Carolina (where it's not so darn hot!), that set-top box or integrated TV will be operable with the new regional cable provider's equipment provided they support CableCARD. In order to facilitate this, the proprietary features of a set-top box, such as encryption, security, and other private network features, are placed onto the CableCARD, a removable device. The CableCARD module is the size of a laptop computer's network interface card (NIC) or PCMCIA card.

When inserted into a third party digital receiver, the CableCARD module provides decryption of encrypted digital content. CableCARD-equipped set-top boxes allow a consumer to purchase a set-top box (or integrated HDTV) from the manufacturer of their choice, which may then be connected to their home entertainment system, much like any other piece of consumer electronics equipment.

What's So Special About CableCARD?

Well for starters, if you move you simply relinquish the CableCARD to your cable provider and then pick up a new one once you reach your destination. You do not have to relinquish an entire cable box and relearn, reprogram and refrustrate yourself with a whole new unit (possibly of lesser quality) at your destination. Plus, that's one less box needed in your home theater/living room. But this is only a small advantage in my book.

The HUGE advantage comes in the picture quality. For those of you under the impression that the local cable company cares about quality and such things as accurate scaling, you are sorely mistaken. Local cable companies charge a small monthly fee (and usually no installation fee) for those utilizing their equipment. What this means is that they are concerned about features but certainly not about quality, since most of their customers are not aware of what they are missing.

CableCARDs allow the user to decrypt digital cable and use higher quality components to handle scaling and display of the cable channels. Mitsubishi showed off two televisions displaying standard definition cable channels side by side at the 2004 CEDIA Expo. One unit was displaying digital cable via a provided set-top box, the other was using CableCARD. The difference was astounding. The Mitsubishi's integrated scaler was of so much higher quality then the one provided by the cheap set-top cable box that clarity was improved, ghosting was dramatically reduced and (real) edge detail was preserved - so much so, that I wondered how I was conned into thinking that it was simply broadcast that way to begin with. THIS is why CableCARD is such a significant development.

The units that support CableCARD also support reception of analogue HDTV signals via antenna, so be sure to get most of your over-the-air HDTV using that method whenever possible as it will far exceed the quality of compressed cable programming.

Seems We've Still Got a Long, Long Way to Go

For now, CableCARD is one-way only, meaning that some services can only be provided through a cable company-provided set-top box:

  • Pay-Per-View
  • Interactive Program Guides (most manufacturers compensate by providing their own)
  • On-Demand with iControl (TWC) or Similar Services
  • Season Sports Packages (like the NBA League Pass)
  • Interactive and Enhanced TV Services (like games, interactive news, etc.)

While a two-way CableCARD is currently being developed there is a huge gap between what can be provided by the cable companies and what the CableCARD technology will support. In addition, it is likely that one-way (i.e. all current) CableCARD devices (televisions, custom set-top boxes) will not be able to handle two-way CableCARDs and will need to be redesigned. Does this mean you should wait to purchase these products? Not in my opinion. Since there is no date assigned or even an agreement in place (other than good faith negotiations) it would be silly to let such a tremendous technology go to waste. You can enjoy the best quality offered today and still utilize an inexpensive cable company-provided set-top unit should you require interactive, two-way services.

My guess is that two-way CableCARDs are at least two years away. If we support CableCARD technology now, then we'll only hasten the point at which consumer choice rules and two-way devices are placed into the market.

Update: As of Q1 of 2007 we have yet to see two-way CableCARDS, however we DO see Microsoft's new Vista OS accepting them and they have finally been licensed for use with HTPCs. The problem is that it may be too little to late as the consumer interest seems to have waned and CableCARD technology has been underwhelmingly received (and often discarded) by the public.

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About the author:

Clint Deboer was terminated from Audioholics for misconduct on April 4th, 2014. He no longer represents Audioholics in any fashion.

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