A cable card allows customers to view and record digital cable-TV channels in the United States without using a set-top box or other equipment supplied by a cable-television company. Subscribers can use the special Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA or PC) cards for viewing and recording on television sets, personal computers and digital video recorders. Customers insert the physical card into a host device to decrypt the video on a cable channel. The card also ensures that only paid subscribers can view the channel. In addition, a cable-company headend server may send messages to the card through the out-of-band signaling system, and the card forwards the messages to the host. The local cable-television company may provide the card to customers for a small monthly fee. Some cable boxes refer to the card as an M-CARD, indicating that it is a multi-stream CableCARD.
An S-CARD is a single-stream CableCARD that decodes one channel at a time, and an M-CARD is a multi-stream CableCARD that can decode up to six channels at once. CableCARD can refer either to a physical card or to a host, a device that uses a CableCARD. Some devices do not require the use of a physical card to employ the card technologies.
Consumers can access both high-definition channels and standard-definition channels with CableCARDs unless the channels are not in a switched-digital video (SDV) network scheme. Two-way devices can receive SDV, and the Interface Specification for the Tuning Resolver enables unidirectional mechanisms to pick up SDV as well. Tuning adaptors and adaptor interfaces make it possible to communicate back to the headend, which is necessary for SDV. Some televisions and DVRs have features called QAM tuners, which allow consumers to view unscrambled, digital cable channels without CableCARDs. Consumers are most likely to find support for CableCARDs on higher-quality television sets. Those sets normally have cable tuners built into the units and include special cable card slots. The cards create access to the requested services and channels for which the customers have subscriptions, and viewers can use the television remote controls to manage the cable channels. Manufacturers usually label televisions as Digital Cable Ready or DCR if they support CableCARDs.
Major cable card providers in some regions require that their technicians install the devices and report the pre-assigned ID numbers for the digital televisions and the CableCARDs to their companies for recording on customers’ accounts. That requirement makes it necessary for company installers to move the cards to new devices if the customers purchase different equipment. Customers may install the cards in some regions, and the companies provide phone support for subscribers in those areas. Customers report CableCARD identification numbers to operators who send out-of-band Entitlement Management Messages (EMMs) to the cards, which remotely authorize them to decode the services and programs that the customers are entitled to view.
The United States cable-television industry created the set of technologies that led to the development of cable cards because of federal-government requirements in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The act states that cable companies must allow access to their networks by devices other than those provided by the cable companies. Section 629 of the 1996 Telecom law instructs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to work with industry to implement the law’s directives. The law gives consumers the opportunity to take advantage of competition among manufacturers unaffiliated with cable-television companies when shopping for consumer electronics.
The FCC ordered cable companies to provide a separable security-access device with which third parties can access digital cable networks. FCC regulations refer to the device as a Point of Deployment (POD) model. To ensure that cable companies provide efficient mechanisms for competitors to use, the FCC directed that the companies must also use a separable access device that is available to third parties. The act bans cable companies from providing devices that need to have integrated security-access mechanisms. The first cable card devices manufactured by third parties were available in August of 2004.
The FCC requires United States cable providers to support the CableCARD 2.0 standard. An association of cable companies runs the research group called CableLabs that developed the specification for the standard. Hosts, devices that use CableCARDS, must have certification of compliance with the CableLabs specification.
In 2003, SCM and Digital Keystone released HPNX, the first verification tool to test the conformity of OpenCable hosts to CableCARD, one-way, single-stream stipulations. In 2006, Digital Keystone released the HPNX Pro version that supports M-card and two-way specifications. CableLabs published a test plan for accepting the M-UDCP device to describe the method of authorizing the OpenCable host mechanisms by using a testing tool called HPNX Pro.
Margi Systems produced the initial assessment tool, Host Emulator Tool, to validate the conformity of CableCARD mechanisms with OpenCable requirements. CableLabs first used the tool to validate devices in 2003.
United States cable companies must provide CableCARDs that conform to the specifications and must make necessary corrections for any incompatibilities between certified CableCARD devices and the cable networks.
Many cable-industry executives support eliminating physical cards and using instead the Downloadable Conditional Access Systems (DCAS), security components that make cable-company networks more accessible.