The Endless Re-Runs Of The Cable-Compatibility Debate

by Rob Pegoraro on August 2, 2013

Once again, the CableCard finds itself in a wobbly position. A bill likely to be introduced in the House next month would strip the Federal Communications Commission of any authority to force cable operators to use CableCards in their own boxes.

That would effectively reduce the market for this security system to TiVo DVRs and a few other third-party tuners–and risk those devices being left behind as cable operators add features to new boxes that use post-CableCard authentication.

But that worry is nothing new. Since 1998, cable operators, electronics manufacturers and government regulators have gone in circles trying to find ways to allow viewers to watch cable without a leased box–much as my “cable-ready” TV could get District Cablevision’s full lineup back in 1995.

At the lowest level, QAM, short for “Quadrature Amplitude Modulation,” allows direct reception of basic-tier cable–as in, just local broadcasters as well as public, educational and government channels. But users who tried this found channels at random numbers that would often move around, requiring repeated rescanning.

QAM now looks dead: The FCC voted in October to allow cable operators to encrypt QAM streams, a move that they say will let them turn service on and off without dispatching a truck.

Then there was CableCard, a removable card that authenticates a TV, tuner or video recorder to receive even premium channels. But early CableCard users often found that waiting for a service technician to show up to set up a CableCard only led to botched installations.

That created a massive customer-support problem for electronics manufacturers, and most bailed on the technology. The FCC’s 2007 rule mandating that cable operators eat their own CableCard dog food and a 2010 ruling requiring them to allow subscribers to install their own cards did ease things–I was pleasantly amazed to see my father-in-law have zero issues setting up a new TiVo for his Comcast service in late 2009–but even then CableCards couldn’t tune into most video-on-demand services.

(TiVo’s support for Comcast VOD in 21 markets is a rare exception.)

Even as these discussions were going on, and the installed base of CableCards in third-party hardware remained a tiny proportion of those in cable-leased boxes, the industry pointed to the prospect of an open, downloadable security mechanism that could replace CableCard as early as 2008. But that didn’t happen.

Then a standard called “tru2way” was going to fix things, allowing users to get a full menu of cable-TV services on third-party hardware. But after some promising signs in 2009 and 2010, deployment stalled and fragmented, and the marketing for the standard stopped (the tru2way.com domain, still owned by the cable industry’s CableLabs research and testing organization, returns an error).

You can find tru2way technology inside some leased cable boxes and DVRs–for example, Samsung builds them for Time Warner Cable–but without nationwide support there’s no market for electronics vendors to chase.

In 2010, the FCC launched an effort to develop an “AllVid” standard that would cover satellite as well as cable. That, too, has gone nowhere–as one result, Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox One will need to plug into a separate cable box to do its job of providing a cleaner front-end for your TV programming.

The last, best hope of being able to watch cable TV with your choice of receiver and remote control looks to be Internet delivery. A few cable and fiber companies have taken promising steps toward this on their own: Time Warner Cable subscribers can watch their entire selection of channels through a Roku box, Verizon FiOS viewers can watch a growing subset of channels through an Xbox, and Cablevision has demoed Internet reception of its channels on a Samsung smart TV.

But if only some cable operators take this step, and if they only ship apps for select makes or models of hardware, you’d still have a market sufficiently distorted to make today’s tangled U.S. smartphone business look like a model of economic rationality.

  • Oliver Street

    It’s not that hard to understand why cable providers want to maintain a hardware monopoly, it lets them charge more.
    It’s not that hard to understand why the FCC and congress let them. Cable providers sell the advertising time that is the oxygen of politics. Without any form of equal time rule politicians are extremely vulnerable to retribution, and the appointees who serve them as well.
    What’s hard to understand is that otherwise sensible businessmen waste R&D dollars buying into any of these “open cable” schemes…
    It’s like like someone trying to build an “open USA Today” interface that let anyone print their own editions of USA Today. OK, bad example… USA Today is a little less Intellectual property obsessed than the NY Times, or Washington Post, etc… which may be why they find the failure of open cable perplexing.

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