[opendtv] Re: News: Streamlined Cable TV in a Card

  • From: "Tom McMahon" <TLM@xxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <opendtv@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 31 Dec 2004 06:43:52 -0800

Not only can't you use your program guide (which also means no PPV or VOD I 
would guess), but they also lack the PVR functionality
that many cable companies are starting to offer in their leased STBs.  I 
explained all this to the FCC 5 years ago but they didn't
seem to understand (or care).

-----Original Message-----
From: opendtv-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:opendtv-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx] On 
Behalf Of Craig Birkmaier
Sent: Friday, December 31, 2004 4:03 AM
To: OpenDTV Mail List
Subject: [opendtv] News: Streamlined Cable TV in a Card

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
(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
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
$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 

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 ramifications.

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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