Cable Tech

Bye-Bye, CableCARDs?

Although a lot of ink was spilled to put the CableCARD mandate into effect in 2007, two federal legislators are now trying to kill the ban on embedded set-top box security, much to the delight of the cable industry.

Representatives Bob Latta (R-OH) and Gene Green (D-TX) have introduced a bill to repeal the set-top security integration ban. The proposed bill maintains the authority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate set-tops, but it would allow cable operators to embed conditional access technology once again in their set-tops rather than rely on removable CableCARD modules.

The goal of the 2007 integration ban was to open up the US set-top market to greater competition. In theory, by removing the security component that kept most operators locked in to Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and the former Motorola as hardware providers, the mandate was supposed to encourage new vendors to enter the set-top business. It was also supposed to create a retail market for boxes that could access cable TV services through operator-provided CableCARDs.

As it has turned out, though, very few CableCARDs have been shipped for use in retail products over the last six years: Only 603,000 CableCARDS have been shipped, as opposed to 42 million CableCARDs embedded in operator-leased set-tops. Only TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) has managed any real success with CableCARD-supported retail boxes, and ironically, the popular DVR provider has now shifted much of its business to the cable industry. (See TiVo Scores Big Profits.)

Samsung Corp. has plans to launch its own CableCARD-enabled box later this fall. (See Samsung STB Hits Amazon.)

Not surprisingly, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) is cheering on the new bill in Congress. The NCTA argues that the integration ban has already cost cable customers more than $1 billion in hardware expenses. It also contends that the rule places an undue burden on cable operators; one that doesn't apply to AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) with its U-verse IPTV service or to satellite TV operators Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH) and DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV).

Cable companies also point out that competition in the TV hardware market has increased significantly over the last six years, thanks to IP video delivery and new multi-screen services. Many operators now offer TV programming over laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Some of the largest providers have also developed apps for access on smart TVs, media streaming boxes, and game consoles. (See Xbox Puts Time Warner App on Tap.)

— Mari Silbey, Special to Light Reading Cable

MosKinky 8/5/2014 | 10:17:36 AM
Re: Cable and IP TV should keep CableCards or... You hit the nail on the head! It is the Cable Companies wanting to wring every cent they can out of the subscriber. I have invested in and built my system to do what I want it to do for the way I want to use my TV's. I don't want, as you said, to have to "rent" every piece of equipment just to be able to do some of what I can do now, and do it in a conditional format.

The DVR's that are available from the C.C.'s and Tivo are bloated and don't perform the way custom devices do.
Duh! 10/1/2013 | 4:27:31 PM
Re: The FCC should encourage an update "How, if at all, do you think the FCC should carry out its mission of opening up the set-top box market?"

Um... first of all, they'll have to get back from their furloughs.   How about opening an NOI, to start?  Like they're required to do?  Maybe in the next Triennial Review?
spc_isdnip 10/1/2013 | 3:21:07 PM
Re: The FCC should encourage an update Having a small generic subscriber token could open up possibilitiies.  SIM cards are pretty secure, right?  (I don't have one... I have a Verizon CDMA phone, and SIM cards are hardwired to GSMA networks.)  The recent silliness about ever-smaller SIM form factors (I'm looking at you, Apple) suggests that maybe the cable industry should settle on one size.  But if it's in the range of the familiar (decade-plus-old) mini-SIM, then it is still small enough to fit into portable and hand-held devices, not just STBs and big TVs.  It could be enabling.  Maybe a minifondleslab (smartphone) could have a socket for one of these too, so it can be validated for cable.

albreznick 10/1/2013 | 2:14:34 PM
Re: The FCC should encourage an update Interesting. I like the idea of a person SIM card for a TV or set-top. That could make things a bit simpler. Think it could work? 
spc_isdnip 10/1/2013 | 12:23:56 AM
Re: The FCC should encourage an update I don't think IPTV boxes are covered by the CableCARD rule anyway; it would literally not work.  This may contribute to the relatively low price of IPTV boxes. I think the FCC should open up the issue and ask for the industry (usually Cable Labs does this development) of a technology-neutral hardware authentication token.  Closer to a SIM card (which is alas not tech-neutral) than a CableCARD, and which a user can insert into a device, and which can be cheaply built into a device.

Few TVs have CableCARD anyway, and those devices could choose to either have plug-in option cards for GI vs. SA mode, or could implement both (not so hard with today's chips).
albreznick 9/30/2013 | 11:49:27 PM
Re: The FCC should encourage an update It does seem like the CableCARD mandate is a rule whose time has passed, largely due to the rapid emergence of IP video. So, while the FCC's intent was good, the execution may need to change. How, if at all, do you think the FCC should carry out its mission of opening up the set-top box market?  
spc_isdnip 9/30/2013 | 5:41:52 PM
The FCC should encourage an update The CableCARD specification is, by today's standards, a howler.  It implements a lot of the old cable box architecture, including demodulation and protocol processing, because it contains the pieces that differ between the old Scientifc-Atlanta and GI cable boxes.  So with it, a TV can talk to the incompatible out of band management channels of etiher type of head end, but should that be in a fat PCMCIA (obsolete form factor) card?

Cable needs to evolve, and so should the authentication token.  CableCARD should be replaced by a simpler token that merely authenticates, and  which can work with two-way services.  Instead it's like having an MS-DOS PC inside every new Win8.1 box.
DOShea 9/30/2013 | 2:19:41 PM
Re: Seriously? Given years of stats showing lacking of progress, as well as thenumber of parties--not just the NCTA--that have complained about CableCard over the years, I'm surprised this hasn;t happened sooner. Though we all know Congressional acts are sometimes more threat than promise.
Duh! 9/30/2013 | 12:20:07 PM
Seriously? Let me stipulate that CableCard is not the wisest Rule in 47CFR.  Well motivated, perhaps, but certainly has not met its objective.   If it went away in a Triennial review or a forbearance petition or something like that, I rather doubt there would be many mourners. 

In case anybody isn't paying attention, the House is about to shut down government operations and destroy the good faith and credit of the United States in a public temper tantrum over a law that was duly passed by the Congress and signed by the President.  There is a backlog of critical appropriations that have not been passed.  There has been no conference between Senate and House to hammer out a budget resolution.  Beyond the normal operations things that the Congress is supposed to do but hasn't, there are any number of major policy issues that urgently need to be dealt with. 

Seriously?  What are these guys thinking?   You'd think that with all that going on,  they'd have more important things to worry about than narrowly preempting the authority of a regulatory agency, in order to overturn a duly adopted Rule.  Or at least that they'd understand the optics of introducing this legislation at this time look really, really bad.  Like pay-to-play.  Seriously.

braunjpb 9/30/2013 | 11:28:50 AM
Cable and IP TV should keep CableCards or... I really hope this is either NOT repealed or a provision is put in that TRULY helps the consumer.   Every cable TV provider (coax, IP, or otherwise) is causing issues in EVERY home.   Why should I buy a $3000 HD and cable ready TV then basically be required to rent (you can't purchase them) a set top box for each TV in my house???   That takes up more plugs, causes more wiring issues and clutters every room in my house.  Oh and what about the little 17" TV my wife wants in the bathroom or the kitchen?   I have to build shelves and put multi-outlet strips in order to accommodate the monstrosities the providers want to REQUIRE me to use.  Not to mention another remote.

No thanks.  These representatives need to think about their consituents rather than their kickbacks.   Mandate the option for a "whole house" tuner from EVERY cable TV provider that works with the tuners in TVs sold today.   That would help EVERYONE!!  It would also reduce the carbon footprint for manufacturing these devices because everyone would need one instead of 5, 6, 7 or 8 of the current cable boxes.

The cable TV industry is so NOT on the side of the consumer or common sense.  It's all about how we can get more money for our investors regardless of how illogical the path.
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