FCC fixes CableCard rules; CableCard market likely to stay broken
You won't have to sit around your house waiting for the cable guy to pop a CableCard into your TiVo, under regulations approved by the Federal Communications Commission today. The FCC's rules will also require that cable companies clearly document their CableCard options and provide the same channel lineup to subscribers who rent their own boxes and those who buy other vendors' CableCard-compatible devices.
But don't think that today's rulings will yield a greater selection of cable-compatible hardware anytime soon.
The FCC's actions, as outlined in a press release (PDF) and documented in a 59-page filing (PDF), attempt to fix long-running problems with CableCard. This technology, developed a decade ago, miniaturized the security and authentication features of the cable box into a card you could pop into any compatible TV or video recorder.
The idea was to allow the cable-TV hardware business to function like a normal electronics market: Instead of being limited to devices offered by your cable operator, you could buy the gadget of your choice and then pick a service.
But cable operators failed to support CableCard in practice, instead continuing to push their own boxes and DVRs. Manufacturers, in turn, backed away from the technology after seeing poor sales. The FCC's 2007 requirement that cable operators use CableCards in their own products failed to budge things.
(The Washington Post Co. owns a cable service, CableOne; I have no idea what its management thinks about this issue and don't particularly care, as it doesn't provide service anywhere near the Washington area.)
At this point, you don't need the fingers of one hand to count your CableCard options: There are TiVo's DVRs, Moxi's lesser-known recorders, Ceton's computer add-on ... and then nothing, as far as I can tell.
But CableCard can still work fine when properly supported--as I found out last Christmas, when my in-laws got a new TiVo HD. Since Comcast allows Bay Area customers to "self-install" CableCards, all my father-in-law had to do was pick up a card at the local Comcast office, pop it into the TiVo and call up Comcast to read off some numbers on the TV's screen. HIs setup can't get Comcast's video-on-demand programming--a generic limitation of CableCard systems, since they can't tie into interactive cable offerings--but I have yet to hear him say "we miss the old cable box."
The FCC's action should ensure that every cable subscriber--as well as customers of Verizon's Fios TV, which is classified as a cable service--can get that experience by nine months from now. (Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice wrote that the Philadelphia-based company had already been working to make self-install the standard and so expected that effort to be "substantially completed in the first quarter of next year," well before the FCC's deadline.)
It may also help more people discover that CableCards exist and can save them money.
But it won't breathe any new life into the market for cable-compatible hardware. Electronics manufacturers have largely written off CableCard; TiVo essentially owns that market, even though I regularly hear from readers who don't care for TiVo's monthly service fees.
Meanwhile, the FCC's rules don't affect satellite TV services, which have shown even less interest than cable operators in opening up their hardware business to outside competitors.
The only real hope lies not in CableCard or an upgraded but largely ignored cable standards initiative called tru2way, but in the FCC's proposal for a universal interface that currently goes by the name AllVid. But that is years from resulting in hardware we can buy and use with any TV service: cable, satellite or fiber.
So for those who don't want to pay the TiVo tax, it will be cable boxes as usual. I wish I could be more optimistic, but I've seen this movie too many times; I know how it ends.
Are you expecting a different ending? Tell me in the comments what I'm overlooking.
| October 14, 2010; 6:33 PM ET
Categories: Gadgets, Policy and politics, TV, Video
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