[opendtv] News: Streamlined Cable TV in a Card

  • From: Craig Birkmaier <craig@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: OpenDTV Mail List <opendtv@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 31 Dec 2004 07:02:47 -0500

This article may not be Mr. Pogue's best efforts. He makes it sound 
like a cable card is virtually the equivalent of a cable set-top box, 
rather than the security device that it is. Pogue correctly asserts 
that a "two-way cable card" will NOT work with a first generation 
(one-way) cable ready digital television; but he does not explain 
why? The fact is that the cable box is built into the set; the cable 
card simply provides the security function (pod) to allow the 
internal cable receiver to work.

The current generation of digital cable ready receivers do not have 
the ability to work with the cable systems program guide, or to 
accommodate the signaling required to order two-way services.

Bottom line, this article explains why many consumers are going to 
bypass the current generation of cable ready sets, opting for a 
monitor, until these anti-competitive tactics are abandoned.



December 30, 2004

Streamlined Cable TV in a Card

  WHAT if I told you about a new product that could improve your TV 
picture, eliminate one of your remote controls, simplify your 
home-theater setup and save you money every month?

And then what if I told you that your local distributor wished, in 
its heart of hearts, that nobody even knew about it?

The brilliant invention really exists. It's the CableCard, a small 
metal card (a so-called PC card, actually, like the ones designed for 
laptops) that slides into a slot on the back of many new 
high-definition TV sets from nearly every manufacturer. The 
CableCard's simple mission is to eliminate your cable box. The card 
stores all the account information that used to be monitored by the 
box, like descramblers for your movie channels - a bit of circuitry 
miniaturization that's about 15 years overdue.

Life without a cable box is blissfully simple. The cable-TV cable 
from the wall plugs directly into the TV. You change channels using 
the TV's own remote control. (Both the box and its remote go back to 
the mother ship. Incidentally, getting rid of the box makes an 
especially big difference when it comes to smaller screens, like 
kitchen-counter TV's.)

  Losing the box frees up one power outlet on your wall, one valuable 
input on the TV and one component's worth of space in your equipment 
rack or wall unit.

  Furthermore, if you ever move, you won't have to learn how to use a 
new cable company's box. You'll operate the same TV using the same 
remote in the same way.

Eliminating a detour through the cable box also spares your video 
signal an analog-to-digital conversion or two. As a result, the 
picture may be noticeably clearer and sharper (depending on which box 
you had and how it was wired to your system).

  On top of all these advantages, it costs a lot less to rent a 
CableCard than a cable box. For example, the monthly CableCard fee is 
$1.25 at  Cablevision, $1.50 at Adelphia and $1.75 at  Time Warner, 
as compared with $4 to $7 a month for a cable box. (Your cable 
programming package costs the same. This parenthetical remark is 
provided for the benefit of the customer who, according to a 
cable-industry spokesman, bought a CableCard TV last week because she 
thought it would provide her with free cable TV.)

Could all this be true? Is it really possible that the government, 
cable companies and TV makers all sat down one day and cheerfully 
agreed to a new, advanced standard designed to save you money and 
simplify your life?

Don't be silly.

As it turns out, hammering out the CableCard standard wasn't 
especially quick or amicable.

  In fact, it took years. What everyone wanted was a technology that 
duplicated every feature of today's digital cable box. But the cable 
companies and the set makers first had to learn to work with and 
trust each other, and meanwhile an F.C.C. deadline was looming. So 
what emerged at the end of Round 1 was only a partial solution: a 
one-way CableCard.

  In other words, today's CableCard can't send information back to the 
cable company from your television set, a loss that has several 

First, you no longer receive the cable company's onscreen TV guide. 
Of course, most CableCard TV sets (marketed as "Digital Cable Ready") 
have their own built-in channel guides, and so do hard-drive 
recorders like the  TiVo.

Second, you lose the ability to order pay-per-view movies with your 
remote control. You have to order them using your cable company's Web 
site or by calling its toll-free number.

Third, today's CableCard can't handle video-on-demand services. 
(They're like pay-per-view movies, except that you can start a movie 
whenever you like, and even pause it while it plays.)

Now, you may not particularly care about losing these features. 
Plenty of people, perfectly content with sources like HBO, 
Blockbuster and  Netflix, have never ordered a movie through the 
cable box and never will.

  But there are people who care deeply about pay-per-view and 
video-on-demand services: the cable companies. They've spent years 
and millions of dollars cultivating these services, some of which 
satellite services can't match. To the cable companies, the one-way 
CableCard represents not only a huge new headache (involving billing, 
inventory, business development, customer service, installer training 
and so on), but also a potential kick in the spreadsheet.

So if you're interested in the CableCard at this early stage, you may 
have to take on a relentless "60 Minutes" persona. All cable 
companies offer the CableCard, but few promote it, and the front-line 
operators may not even know what you're talking about. Last week, for 
example, Cablevision mailed a brochure to its customers listing the 
price increases for 2005 and describing its latest services, with 
nary a word about the CableCard.

In fact, you may get the distinct impression that the cable companies 
are trying to talk you out of a CableCard. At a Web site for Time 
Warner Cable, a Frequently Asked Question about CableCard televisions 
(also called Digital Cable Ready sets) reads; "Q: Why should I get 
one? What are its advantages over a set-top box? A: A Digital Cable 
Ready television may not be for you. If you want to take advantage of 
Time Warner Cable's interactive services, such as iControl or our 
Interactive Program Guide, then you want the expanded features of a 
digital set-top box." (Um - those are advantages?)

Eventually, all this caginess will evaporate, as soon as the industry 
settles on a standard for two-way CableCards. By most estimates, 
however, two-way CableCards are at least two years away. Meanwhile - 
listen up, pay-per-view patrons - the two-way CableCard won't work in 
today's CableCard-equipped TV sets.

Before kissing your cable box goodbye forever, there's one final 
consideration: TV-set compatibility. At this early stage, different 
TV makers have designed their CableCard slots with different degrees 
of gracefulness.

I learned this fact from the knowledgeable Cablevision installer who 
put CableCards into my two testing sets: Panasonic's gorgeous Viera 
TH-42PX25U/P, a 42-inch plasma, and Sharp's 45-inch Aquos LC-45GX6U. 
(You can't install a CableCard yourself. A cable-company technician 
must do the job, which includes programming the card to work only 
with your specific TV set in your specific location, all part of an 
elaborate registration process that makes these cards a lot more 
difficult to hack than either cable boxes or satellite security 
cards. The installation charge is usually around $40 or $50, although 
it's free from Time Warner.)

The Panasonic Viera worked flawlessly with the CableCard; using the 
TV's own sleek remote to change channels, rather than an ugly 
cable-box remote, feels infinitely more natural and obvious. 
(Changing channels takes about the same amount of time.) The cable 
guy reported similar good luck with Panasonic sets across its 
CableCard line (and recommended  Sony's sets, too).

The Sharp Aquos wasn't quite as accommodating. For some goofy 
technical reason, the Sharp set treated analog and digital channels 
differently once the CableCard was installed. So if you have 
Cablevision (a company whose channels aren't yet all digital), for 
example, you have to switch video inputs on the remote whenever you 
want to view a channel higher than 84. Yuck.

If you use, or think you might someday use, video-on-demand and 
similar interactive features, don't invest in the CableCard until the 
two-way version arrives in 2006 or whenever.

  But otherwise, if Santa brought you a Digital Cable Ready set - 
meaning one with a CableCard slot - becoming an early adopter of this 
promising technology means lower monthly fees, fewer wires and 
remotes, and maybe even a slightly sharper picture. Those are gifts 
of an especially rare sort: the kind that simplifies your 
technological life instead of complicating it.

  David Pogue's video companion will return next week. He can be 
reached via e-mail at Pogue@xxxxxxxxxxx

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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