The CableCARD's 'Greatest Hits'

And plenty of misses, too. Here's a look back at the many missteps and wrenching moments that occurred during the lengthy FCC ban on integrated security set-top boxes.

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

December 23, 2020

22 Min Read
The CableCARD's 'Greatest Hits'

There's no doubt that 2020 was an awful year. But there was one thing that gave the US cable industry cause to rejoice: 2020 also marked the end of the CableCARD era.

In September, the FCC ruled that its continued involvement in making rules and regulations governing separable security modules for cable boxes, and the few remaining TVs with CableCARD slots still languishing in the market, is just not worth the trouble anymore.

Figure 1: The CableCARD3118.jpgBefore the rebrand, the CableCARD was known as a Point of Deployment (POD) module.

The FCC effectively put the kibosh on mandating CableCARD support and the need for cable operators to continue reporting out their CableCARD deployments in MSO-supplied set-tops and for retail TVs, TiVo boxes and other types of cable-ready video navigation devices.

As the FCC put it:

"In this Report and Order, we terminate a proceeding in which we sought comment on the adoption of new regulations for 'navigation devices' – devices that consumers use to access multichannel video programming and other services offered over multichannel video programming networks – and eliminate outdated CableCARD support and reporting requirements."

Regulations requiring large cable operators to support and continue the deployment of CableCARD modules "no longer serve a useful purpose and thus are no longer necessary," the Commission added, concluding that "intervention in the navigation device marketplace is not necessary at this time" and could end up stifling the progress already being made.

This was an acknowledgment by the FCC that the pay-TV and video market is starting to be dominated by streaming apps from pay-TV operators and programmers alike for retail OTT devices that deliver secured premium content.

This new market dynamic is taking place without the FCC's meddling and without the need for a clunky CableCARD, which is finally on its way out to pasture. But the CableCARD was already past its prime when the FCC's rules first took effect in July 2007, some ten years after the agency first adopted rules that required MSOs to provide separable security modules by July 2000.

Indeed, this fiasco goes back several years. Before the separable security module was branded as the CableCARD, it was referred to as the Point of Deployment (POD) module. Not too surprisingly, that didn't catch on, either.

The first wave of CableCARDs provided secure, live, linear TV channels but did not support interactive services like video-on-demand (VoD) or switched digital video (SDV). That created a whole other mess that spawned TiVo's love-hate relationship with the CableCARD, with a heavier emphasis on the hate. We'll get into that a bit later.

To remedy the SDV issue, the industry gave birth to a monstrosity called the Tuning Resolver, later relabeled as the Tuning Adapter. A name change did not erase the fact that it was a kluge that no one liked.

Then there was tru2way – the video device middleware billed as the answer for retail cable video devices to support linear TV, VoD, SDV and so on. But the consumer electronics industry, save for some efforts by Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and LG, didn't go for it. The failures of tru2way (and EBIF, cable's brief shot at delivering interactive TV apps to its base of aging set-tops) were enough to drive people to drink. Want proof? Behold:

Figure 2: Bottom's Up436.jpgA tchotchke from UniSoft that I picked up somewhere in my industry travels.

For an editor covering the cable industry, the CableCARD regime was the gift that kept on giving. For every advancement made, one could count on two steps back and three boneheaded screw-ups to follow. A week without a CableCARD story to pursue was like a week without sunshine!

It was quite the opposite for former Light Reading Copy Chief Kevin Cramer. Whenever I filed or even alerted the editors that I would be filing a story on this subject, I swear I could hear Kevin groaning – all the way from New York.

Small impact at retail

The CableCARD regime did little to advance the ball on cable-ready retail devices. Per the FCC, there were just 456,000 CableCARDs installed in retail navigation devices by the first quarter of 2020 among the four largest US cable operators, down from 528,000 in Q1 2017.

In comparison, tens of millions of operator-supplied CableCARD devices have been deployed. In the last "CableCARD Update" I filed for Light Reading in September 2010 (I was sort of maniacal about this story back then), the top ten US MSOs had deployed 531,000 CableCARDs for retail devices compared to 22.7 million operator-supplied set-tops with CableCARDs since the ban took effect in July 2007. (See CableCARD Update.)

It's all over now, but it would be unthinkable not to give the era and its errors their due and present: The CableCARD's Greatest Hits. We even made an album cover:

Figure 3: 1551.jpg

Let's get to it…

Next Page: November 2006: All hail the 'M-Card'

2006: All hail the 'M-Card'

CableLabs said it opened up a "streamlined process" that allows a "Plug and Play" device to receive multiple streams of protected programming from the new Multi-stream CableCARD or M-Card. The effort was supported by the likes of TiVo, Motorola and Digeo. The first CableCARDs could not handle multiple encrypted streams. (See CableLabs Spurs CableCards.)

Figure 4: 1599.jpgA CableCARD and set-top for pairing. To sidestep the possibility that consumers might want to remove the CableCARD module, most operator-supplied boxes that were pre-paired with a security module covered over with a plate that would require a screwdriver for removal.

2007: A big 'no' to Comcast

As the July 2007 FCC mandate crept closer, cable operators asked for leniency. They sought waivers that would allow them to continue to deploy boxes with integrated security (i.e., without CableCARDs) to give them more time to explore a downloadable conditional access system (DCAS) that would obviate the need for CableCARD modules.

While speaking at CES 2007, then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin made it clear that Comcast and its initial waiver request could go pound sand until the cable provider could offer more guidance on its efforts. (See FCC to Comcast: 'No Waiver for You'.)

Preparing for 'Seven-Oh-Seven'

By this time, cable operators were scrambling ahead of the July 1, 2007, ban on set-tops with integrated security. I wrote about it, noting that several operators seeking waivers complained that a CableCARD-equivalent set-top was about three times the cost of the box with integrated security. To relieve some of the operational impacts, many operators planned to deploy set-tops with the CableCARD module already inserted at the factory. (See Countdown to 'Seven-Oh-Seven'.)

Many smaller cable operators fretted that they would be unable to comply with the FCC's order because larger cable operators were hogging production of CableCARD-compliant boxes.

As Bill Bauer, president and CEO of WinDBreak, a cable operator based in Gering, Nebraska, told me then: "Do you think Motorola will put me ahead of Comcast? Absolutely not. I could put an order in, but I know I won't get any delivery. The only way I can continue is how I already am. It's not that we want to be civilly disobedient. We just don't have any other choice."

July 1, 2007 – The ban (and a ton of waivers) arrive

As the ban on set-tops without CableCARD modules took effect, the FCC issued a boatload of waivers to several pay-TV operators, including Verizon, whose new Fios TV service at the time used a hybrid IP-QAM system featuring Motorola-made boxes. Many operators were given an "Omnibus waiver" on the condition that they go all-digital by February 17, 2009. The FCC denied a request for a blanket waiver from the NCTA. Fun fact: Qwest (remember them?) got a waiver to continue using set-tops for its VDSL-based pay-TV service offered in parts of Phoenix, Arizona and Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

My big memory about that day: I was in Paris about to start a vacation and had to read through a ton of FCC filings and file this puppy before I could go out to drink, eat, and drink again… and be merry. Stupid set-top ban. (See Verizon & Others Get Their Waivers.)

When I returned from my Paris fun, I thought it would be great to run a semi-regular eye chart about who got waivers. Didn't I say it was the gift that kept on giving? (See Son of 'Waiver Central'.)

The doomed PolyCipher effort

The CableCARD fiasco seemed to make it clear that a software-based security system would be better than the hardware module. So, there were plenty of efforts to develop a downloadable conditional access system (DCAS) for set-tops.

PolyCipher LLC, a joint venture of Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications, took a shot at it. There was a lot of work done around a secure microprocessor for set-tops, TVs and other "hosts" that could accept downloadable security. Still, the effort never really took off and many industry moves related to DCAS tended to get scrutinized by the consumer electronics industry. Last I recall, PolyCipher was effectively dissolved, and what was left was tucked away at CableLabs. (See PolyCipher Targets '08 Trials, CEA Continues CableCARD Fight, Who Will Own Cable's Content Security? and MSOs Closing PolyCipher Headquarters.)

Consumer CableCARD pain

The FCC and the cable industry inflicted plenty of CableCARD pain on consumers. Getting a CableCARD paired with a retail device was a frustrating experience for consumers, especially in the early going. (See CableCARD Conundrums.)

Meanwhile, the cable industry tried to fix a shortcoming afflicting retail CableCARD devices. CableCARDs had no two-way connectivity back to the network operator's cable system. That meant that TiVo boxes with CableCARDs could not access services like video-on-demand (VoD) and channels that were in a service tier called switched digital video (SDV). SDV is a bandwidth-saving technique that multicasts certain channels only when a viewer in a given service group tunes into it.

Figure 13: 1635.jpgMotorola's Tuning Adapter used the same housing as its DCT-700 all-digital set-top box.

Lots of consumers used TiVo boxes to watch cable TV and suddenly these new security rules meant that TiVo boxes couldn't access some portion of a cable provider's channels. The industry's answer was a Tuning Resolver/Tuning Adapter, which really amounted to tethering a two-way cable set-top box to the uni-directional TiVo box. The reviews were unanimous: TiVo hated it; Consumers hated it. (See NCTA Sees Solution to Switching Snag and CableLabs Stamps SDV Tuning Adapters.)

Figure 17: TiVo + Tuning Adapter = Rat's Nest in the Making9846.jpgThis diagram shows how to connect a TiVo Bolt to a cable operator-supplied Tuning Adapter so the viewer can access channels in an MSO's switched digital video tier. Simple!
(Image source: TiVo)

PC-TV set-top alternatives

While TiVo boxes and TVs were the CableCARD's primary retail drivers, some enthusiasts gravitated to PC-TV tuners with CableCARD slots made by companies such as Ceton and SiliconDust that allowed viewers to watch live digital cable TV programming on their Windows Media Center PCs. Those products were labeled an OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR); they, too, were not capable of supporting cable VoD. (See Ceton Pitches Cable Set-Top Alternative.)

Figure 5: PC-TV1574.jpgCeton's CableCARD tuner for Windows Media Center PCs.

Meanwhile, efforts around a natural OCUR follow-on project – called the Bi-directional OpenCable Receiver, or BOCR – also started to surface. Like the OCUR, a BOCR would be equipped with a CableCARD and deliver linear-digital cable TV to PCs and employ a distributed form of the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) middleware that would support cable VoD and other interactive services. A BOCR proof-of-concept from Advanced Micro Devices and Vividlogic (sold to SeaChange in 2010) made an appearance at the 2007 Cable Show in Las Vegas, but I don't recall it getting very far beyond that. (See Cable Developing Two-Way PCTV Play.)

Next Page: January 2008: Cable places tru2way bet in Las Vegas

Cable places tru2way bet in Las Vegas

CES 2008 was a big event for the cable industry. It introduced tru2way, the consumer brand for what we were referred to as the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP). Tru2way was viewed as a possible answer to the interactive services problem afflicting CableCARD retail devices. (See Cable's 'tru2way' Play.)

It even had its own logo:

Figure 6: 6270.jpg

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts keynoted CES to promote tru2way and the operator's and the industry's broader commitment to "openness" with the CE industry. "The era of an open, two-way cable platform is here," Roberts declared. (See CES: Roberts Declares Open Season.)

Figure 7: Brian Roberts Takes the Stage at CES 20082265.jpgYes, trust me, that really is Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts giving his CES 2008 keynote. I took this blurry snap with an old Sony 2.5 megapixel camera. Believe it or not, this pic was the best of the lot from the keynote, and the only one in which I could make out a visage of Roberts on stage without bruising my eyelids from squinting so hard.

Panasonic bought in: The CE giant introduced two tru2way TV models that eventually made it to stores in a few Comcast markets. Panasonic and Comcast also connected on the "AnyPlay" portable DVR, a standard-definition device with an integrated DVD/CD player, a 60-Gig hard drive that was also outfitted with tru2way middleware. It looked like the George Foreman Grill but without the sizzle. (See Comcast, Panasonic Unveil Portable DVR.)

Figure 8: 1638.jpg

A portion of Panasonic's booth at CES 2008 was dedicated to the company's plans involving tru2way.

Figure 15: 2230.jpg

Meanwhile, Digeo was at the same CES spouting baloney about a $1,000 multi-room, HD-DVR teeming with apps and a CableCARD slot that would be sold at retail. We learned that Digeo was cutting staff and putting those retail plans on the shelf just days later. (See Moxi Maker Digeo Slashes Staff, Product Line).

Figure 14: 3961.jpgDigeo showed off some interesting-looking wares at CES 2008... then the other shoe dropped.

Late 2008 – tru2way TVs hit the stores

Denver and Chicago were the first Comcast markets to support the retail sale of Panasonic's initial lineup of tru2way-based televisions – a 42-inch model for $1,599.95 and a 50-inch model that fetched $2,299.95 – at outlets such as Abt Electronics, Ultimate Electronics and Circuit City. I witnessed this feat firsthand at a nearby Circuit City store:

Figure 9: 1641.jpgNo, I didn't buy it. But I took this crappy shot of one of Panasonic's tru2way models, live and in the flesh in a Circuit City showroom.

Meanwhile, the cable industry pushed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Sony designed to pair cable commitments to tru2way with Sony's commitment to building tru2way-powered TVs. Others in the CE industry were pushing a competing alternative called DCR+ and, later, an initiative called AllVid that eventually enlisted the help of giants such as Google, Sony and Intel. (See FCC Inches Towards Net-Agnostic Gateways, Google & Friends Try to Keep AllVid Alive and Cable: FCC's AllVid Goes Too Far.)

July 2010 – Panasonic tunes out tru2way

Panasonic, the cable industry's tru2way champion, scrubbed those products after it was clear there was little consumer demand for them – at least nowhere near enough to justify the purported $200 in additional costs to make a tru2way TV. Panasonic continued to make tru2way boxes for service providers… for a while. (See Panasonic Tunes Out Tru2way TVs.)

Meanwhile, Samsung had several tru2way TV models certified at CableLabs, but they didn't even make a whimper at retail. Sony developed a tru2way "set-back" box that could be mounted and hidden behind the set, but that was another retail dud.

Figure 10: Set-Back Box1644.jpgSony's tru2way set-back box could be mounted and hidden behind certain Bravia TV models.

This tru2way retail thing isn't gonna happen

By the time CES 2011 got underway, it was time to write tru2way's obituary as a driver of interactive retail cable boxes and cable-ready TVs. Lack of consumer demand and wider cable industry support, installation issues, fights with factions of the consumer electronics industry and the anticipated rise of streaming apps and TV-connected streaming devices all played a role in tru2way's demise as a retail catalyst.

Still, EchoStar even gave tru2way a shot with the T2200S, a multi-tuner HD-DVR with a built-in Slingbox. However, EchoStar's plan centered on sales to operators rather than to consumers at retail. (See EchoStar Slings Its First Tru2way Set-Top.)

Figure 11: EchoStar Does tru2way1589.jpgBack when Charlie Ergen tried to sell set-tops to cable operators. CableOne was among the cable operators that took a close look at a 'Sling-loaded' model.

Next Page: Say hey to the DTA

Say hey to the DTA

While tru2way was failing at retail, cable operators were mulling strategies to eliminate analog video and migrate to an all-digital video platform, a move that would help operators reclaim that bandwidth for DOCSIS 3.0, VoD and other advanced services. Following the move to all-digital, operators could follow a path to all-IP migrations, which remains an ongoing effort.

The problem is that there were still tens of millions of cable customers using analog video services that would need to be moved to the all-digital video platform without causing them too many headaches. To accelerate that migration, the cable industry, with a lot of input from Comcast and pioneering work from vendors such as Colorado-based Evolution Digital, started work on the Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA). This digital-to-analog "channel zapper" would deliver digital linear TV channels in standard definition to analog TV sets and set-tops. (See FCC Believes in Evolution-ary DTAs.)

Figure 12: 1577.jpgA Cisco DTA.

A bigger problem is that for a mass deployment to millions of subs, DTAs needed to be inexpensive – in the range of $35 a unit. But there was no way in hell to get to that price if a DTA was encumbered with a CableCARD slot. The solution was to seek out FCC waivers for DTAs, backed by the argument that said waivers would advance the all-digital migration, which was something that the FCC very much wanted to see happen.

The first DTAs delivered SD video "in the clear" (without encryption) but later added a layer of integrated content security that, importantly, did not require an expensive CableCARD. Although DTAs were elementary one-way devices (so they didn't inherently support VoD, for instance), future DTA models added electronic guides and support for HD video. (See DTA Waiver Mania.)

Deployed in the tens of millions, the DTAs (even Huawei got into the act) became a centerpiece of many cable all-digital efforts. While that aided all-digital efforts, they also hampered migrations to IPTV video because the deployment effectively choked the plant with a bunch of QAM-only channel zappers. Comcast, whose DTA-fueled analog spectrum reclamation plan was code-named "Project Cavalry," has since gotten around the problem with the xiD, a more versatile box that can serve as a simple DTA but can also be flipped to become a full X1 box. (See Comcast's $1B Bandwidth Plan and Comcast Lights Up DTA Encryption.)

TiVo gets spittin' mad

TiVo has had a love-hate relationship with the CableCARD.

Figure 16: 4566.jpgA TiVo CableCARD set-up and settings screen from days of yore.
(Image source: USA Today)

One of those hate-filled moments surfaced in the spring of 2010 when TiVo urged the FCC to look into the CableCARD economics and find out why costs for the modules and platform weren't dropping despite mass deployments of operator-supplied CableCARD set-tops. One argument was that the CableCARD market was limited to two primary suppliers – Motorola and Cisco Systems – and their lock on the market kept CableCARD costs artificially high and virtually unchanged despite some 20 million CableCARD units having been deployed by cable operators by then. (See TiVo Seeks CableCARD Cost Probe.)

The year before, TiVo, which eventually created a decent business based on cable operator partnerships, argued that MSOs discriminated against third-party retail box makers by imposing licenses and conditions that limited product design and wrested control of the look, feel and content of the user interface. (See TiVo Gives Cable Both Barrels.)

The cable industry did try to make some concessions. In late 2007, CableLabs adjusted the OCAP/tru2way middleware so it could run in two modes: "TiVo Mode," which would preserve the TiVo interface and allow full access to the DVR's functions (including Internet content), and "Cable Mode," which would supply the MSO's apps and native user interface.

CableLabs was directed by the cable operator powers above to "do whatever TiVo wants" to get TiVo off the industry's back and to tamp down its rhetoric at the FCC, an industry source close to the action told me at the time. (See TiVo à la Mode.)

But TiVo kept at it. In the fall of 2010, the FCC put forth an order to fix some CableCARD shortcomings, including a requirement that cable operators prominently list the fees for CableCARDs and separate costs for CableCARDs for leased devices and those purchased at retail. The FCC shot down TiVo's plan for an IP backchannel for switched digital video but recognized that the Tuning Adapter was a less than perfect remedy. (See The New CableCARD Rules.)

2011-2015: Cablevision, Charter do downloaded security

PolyCipher didn't push the ball over the goal line on a downloadable conditional access system (DCAS), but Cablevision Systems did. The New York-based cable op met a deadline to incorporate the technology in all its new set-tops by the end of 2010. Cablevision's early DCAS efforts used NDS security tech on Samsung boxes. LG also made some beta boxes for the project. (See Cablevision Makes its Security Deadline.)

Charter Communications, with former Cablevision execs such as Tom Rutledge and Jim Blackley then calling the shots, also got a DCAS effort off the ground a few years later using a similar technical approach (Cisco had acquired NDS by this time and was still years away from selling its video software assets s to a company with former NDS execs that is now known as Synamedia).

Meanwhile, Bill Bauer of WinDBreak and Tele-Media Broadband and Buford Media Group formed a venture in 2005 called Beyond Broadband Technology (BBT) that developed a DCAS and a set-top for it to run on, and actually made some progress. (See BBT Loads Up for First Field Test and BBT's Set-Top Box.)

AllVid envisions a world of apps

By this time, the FCC looked into an open API for AllVid's angle as an alternative to the CableCARD. There was a lot of backlash by service providers, holding that the market for video streaming and app-based delivery would progress naturally without heavy-handed government mandates getting in the way. (See AllVid Starting to Look App-Tastic.)

Looking back, it was a prescient proposal, as OTT and video streaming are effectively taking over the video market. Notably, Disney argued that the AllVid proposals fell short because they would hinder the media industry's ability to innovate or experiment with new business models.

Blah, blah, blah. What does Disney know about streaming, anyway? They were only able to scale Disney+ up to 86.6 million subscribers worldwide in about a year, with some analysts expecting that to climb to as high as 260 million around 2024.

Around 2015, the FCC jumped in with the formation of a Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) that sought recommendations on an industry-wide downloadable security system. The FCC then held a bunch of really long meetings with the DSCTAC to get to the bottom of it all, eventually finding that an apps approach controlled by multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) aligned well with the goals of the effort. In 2016, then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler issued what he billed as "simplified consumer-first, app-driven" rules.

And that brings us up to today. This year, 2020, is the year that the FCC dropped the whole thing for good. Wasn't that fun?

— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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