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Getting CableCarded (updated)

I've written previously about the checkered history of the CableCard--the little subscriber-identity module that's supposed to let you use the hardware of your choice with any cable TV service. It's a wonderful idea in theory, but in practice cable companies have made it as difficult as possible to get one of these things.

That history of recalcitrance led the Federal Communications Commission to require cable operators to use CableCards in their own hardware--the idea being to make them so ubiquitous that no cable company could say "we don't carry them," "you'll need to wait a week for a technician to install them" or just "huh?" At that point, a competing hardware manufacturer like TiVo should have the same shot at a customer's business as the cable company's anointed cable-box vendor (usually, Scientific-Atlanta or Motorola).

Reports at the local-news site Metroblogging DC, however, suggest that Comcast hasn't gotten with the program yet. Regular contributor Tom Bridge, a tech writer who lives in Fairlington, griped last week that he couldn't use his new TivoHD until a Comcast technician visited his residence to plug in a CableCard:

I was told by an incredibly surly woman that only "qualified technicians" could install them. I recognize that not everyone works in tech here in the Greater DC area, but I'd say a sizeable number of people can understand the concept of plugging in a card. It's not that tricky, honestly. Slide the card in until you feel it seat, then plug all the goodies in. But no, they send some contractor lackey out, instead. The earliest I can get one is Sunday from 3-6.

Things went downwhill from there, as Bridge wrote Sunday night. The Comcast installer showed up late--2 hours and 40 minutes past that service window--and with two defective CableCards, identifiable as such by the "BAD" stickers on each. It took a second visit Monday afternoon to get his new TiVo up and running on Comcast's signal.

I fully understand Bridge's anger. Why can't Comcast grasp that it's a service provider, not a hardware vendor? (Note that I could say the same things about the average cell-phone company.)

I asked Comcast's local PR rep for comment yesterday morning but have not yet gotten a response beyond an assurance that the company would provide an answer by 9 a.m. today. Not having received that, I'd now like to hear from other people who have purchased CableCard-compatible hardware and tried to get a CableCard from Comcast, Cox or whoever provides their cable TV: How'd it go?

Update: An e-mail from Comcast spokeswoman Jaye Linnen landed in my inbox a few minutes ago. She wrote that "our goal is to ensure that any customer requesting and using a Cable Card has the best and easiest experience possible." Linnen added that Comcast has "already successfully distributed more than 100,000 of these cards to our customers." (Comcast's site reports a total of 24.1 million cable customers, of which 14.1 million subscribe to digital cable and could theoretically use a CableCard. Meanwhile, the Consumer Electronics Association says that 8 million CableCard-ready devices had shipped as of early July.)

But: "given the complexity of some newer [consumer electronics] equipment, Comcast may require that a professional technician handle installation and activation to ensure that cards are installed and activated properly."

By Rob Pegoraro  |  August 15, 2007; 9:50 AM ET
Categories:  Video  
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