Info and Answers
CableCARD: What You Need to Know
CableCARDs aim to replace cable boxes, but compatibility and communication issues need to be considered before making the jump.
CableCARDs are designed to slide into compatible TVs, set-top boxes and other devices. Photo: Scientific Atlanta
April 27, 2007 by Marshal Rosenthal

The name “CableCARD” was coined by its designers, CableLabs, a non-profit research and development consortium founded by members of the cable television industry. The CableCARD device is similar to the PC cards (PCMCIA cards, to be technical) you slip into a laptop. Connectors at one end of the CableCARD mate with connectors in a receiving device, which is usually a TV display but can also be a digital video recorder (e.g. TiVo Series 3), a media center or a set-top box.

The upside to CableCARD is that it eliminates the need for a cable box, and with a card installed and activated you can receive analog, digital, high-definition and premium programming (HBO, Showtime, etc.). Plus, as David Naranjo, director of product development for Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America, points out, “the CableCARD functionality integrated into a television eliminates any potential degradation of signal when compared to external solutions.”

I was an early adopter of CableCARD (2004) and it took two technicians and a manager from Adelphia Cable more than three days to get it working. Today, such annoyances are less common; you can insert the card yourself if the cable company allows it (most don’t, it seems), and getting it up and running isn’t the process it once was.

How prevalent is CableCARD? In a report from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), by the end of February 2007 the five largest multiple system operators (MSOs)—which serve nearly 80 percent of the cable subscribers in the country—have deployed more than 229,000 CableCARDs. As of March 15, 2007, 26 consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers have had more than 548 Unidirectional Digital Cable Product (UDCP) models, such as digital-cable-ready DTV sets, certified or verified for use with CableCARDs.

This is a small number relative to the number of digital TVs sold, and one reason for the discrepancy could be CableCARD’s one-way communication. The CableCARD-equipped displays available right now can’t do bi-directional communication between the CableCARD and the service provider—the cards can only receive data, not send it. So if you like on-demand, pay-per-view, and video-on-demand programming, you can’t view this material with CableCARD. Nor can you use an interactive programming guide or access enhanced TV services.

Steve Storozum, video transport engineer and officer of Video Services Forum hammers this point home: “The currently-deployed version of CableCARD leaves a bit to be desired since the way it has been supported by television manufacturers doesn’t provide for any two-way interactivity, nor does it allow for multiple video streams at the same time.”

According to CableLabs, the CableCARD module has been a two-way-capable device from the very beginning. Digital television manufacturers, CableLabs says, requested that a host standard be developed that only had one-way capability.

But CableCARD changes are coming. Both Scientific Atlanta and Motorola are ramping up production of CableCARD boxes that comply with new Federal Communications Commission specifications and support HD and DVR functions (this is known as Multi-Stream Cable CableCARD or “MCard”).

According to Barry James Folsom, corporate vice president and general manager of Motorola Connected Home Solutions, this CableCARD interoperability ultimately expands consumer choice. “CableCARDs allow consumers to obtain, from either their service provider or from a local retailer, a host set-top or a host TV of their choice and then quickly connect to their home entertainment system,” he says. And while not interactive, MCards do at least support DVR functionality by providing up to six simultaneous, independently-tunable TV channels.

Next to arrive, perhaps in 2008, will be CableCARD 2.0-based interactive host devices. However, interactive TV features will require buying a new 2.0-compatible TV (or new device/card for your PC). Storozum notes that CableCARD 2.0 MCards will work with these new TVs and PCs, but they are not required. In theory, says Storozum, you will be able to use CableCARD 1.0 single-stream cards (SCards) with interactive CableCARD 2.0 TVs/PCs, but you won’t receive multiple channels at the same time. 

“Given this, it seems like CableCARD 2.0 MCards provide little advantage to most digital TV consumers today, but if the cable company offers them at a similar price to CableCARD 1.0 SCards, you might as well get one. It can’t hurt!,” Storozum says.

Where it does hurt is for those consumers who want the interactivity that CableCARD 2.0 will offer, but who already have a CableCARD 1.0-equipped device.

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