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Opening Up the Cable Box

If you placed an order for a new cable box starting yesterday, it's supposed to come with some extra assembly required: popping a "CableCard" into a slot somewhere on the box that stores all your subscriber information.

That step comes courtesy of a long-delayed Federal Communications Commission regulation that came into effect July 1, intended to give customers a better choice of TV hardware. The idea is to make cable boxes a product that people can buy on their own as standalone devices or built into TVs, digital video recorders or other home-theater gear. (Think of how SIM cards let you buy the cellphone of your choice, then use it with any GSM carrier you like.)

CableCards have been around for a few years now, but so far the cable industry has managed to ignore them to death (as Mike Musgrove reported in this 2005 story). Some HDTVs have included CableCard slots, but buyers have repeatedly told me of problems getting CableCards from their local service providers. For instance, the cable operator won't even tell customers about it, and instead, spends time trying to upsell customers on renting a traditional box, or sends a cable technician to plug in the card who then says he can't get it to work.

(These CableCard implementations also preclude using interactive services provided by a cable company, such as onscreen programmming guides and on-demand video.)

By forcing cable operators to use CableCards in their own hardware, the FCC aims to break this gridlock. The cable industry fought that for a long time: see the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's arguments opposing regulation but lost that appeal (PDF) last week.

Coincidentally, the NCTA also had an exhibit at its Capital Hill offices last Monday of all the new innovations that would be made possible by a technology called OpenCable. It's sort of like an operating-system software that electronics manufacturers can put into anything that takes a CableCard --cable boxes but also televisions, DVRs and even (once some copy-control technology is put into place) some new Windows computers.

Seeing a lineup of new hardware -- a Panasonic plasma TV, a TiVo recorder, an HP desktop PC -- tuned into cable broadcasts and running OpenCable software was certainly more exciting than seeing the usual drab cable-TV interface on the usual Scientific-Atlanta or Motorola cable boxes. But first this technology has to get into shipping hardware; that Panasonic set, for example, isn't due in stores until 2008.

Note, also, that the FCC rules don't apply to Verizon's Fios service and satellite-TV operators. And if you already have a cable box, your cable company is under no obligation to give you one with CableCard support unless you upgrade your existing service.

Still, it's some sort of a start--or, more accurately, a restart. Now that you've got this option, what (if anything) would you dump your cable box for?

(PS: Curious about the iPhone? See Saturday's post and subsequent comments... all 80-plus of them.)

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 2, 2007; 12:25 PM ET
Categories:  Video  
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