Cablecard TV is a relatively new approach to unscrambling cable channels without the use of proprietary equipment. A Cablecard, often capitalized as CableCARD or CableCard, is a trademarked electronic device that is based on the PCMCIA card standard developed for use with laptop computers. These cards are manufactured by third-party companies and are then programmed and distributed by cable companies to their customers. Originally, Cablecards were inserted into peripheral devices attached to televisions, such as DVD players and digital video recorders (DVRs), but a Cablecard TV is built with a slot for the card to be directly inserted into it.
Government Pushes for Cablecard Development
The invention of the Cablecard was prompted by the Telecom Law of 1996. This law gives the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the responsibility to ensure that equipment for multichannel video systems, such as cable television, is available to consumers from manufacturers and retailers other than the company providing the video service.
The purpose behind this law was to attempt to foster competition in the industry and provide consumers with a choice of devices. A similar situation occurred in 1984 when Bell was forced to split into several different companies. Before this, nearly all telephones were owned by Bell and leased to consumers.
Two years after the Telecom Law of 1996 was passed, the FCC began working with cable companies to develop an efficient device that could be easily switched from one television or television component to another. The FCC set a deadline on the development of such a device for July 2000. In order to provide incentive for the cable companies to comply, the FCC ruled that they may not require cable descramblers to use inseparable, proprietary security mechanisms after 2004.
Even though cable companies successfully pushed back the deadline from January 2005 to July 2007, the first Cablecard devices became available to consumers in August 2004. Shortly after this, the first Cablecard TV became available. The first TVs of this sort were high-end models that included many features that were not available with budget models.
The standard currently required by the FCC is Cablecard 2.0, which was developed by CableLabs. CableLabs is a research-and-development firm jointly owned by several U.S. cable companies. The underlying technology of this standard originated in 2003, but it was upgraded in 2005 and again in 2006. The devices using this standard are most often referred to as Cablecards, but some developers have begun calling them M-cards because they can process multiple video streams simultaneously.
The development of the Cablecard 2.0 standard was not a smooth process. On one side of the issue was the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), which pushed for the best interests of the cable companies. On the other side was the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which supported the interests of the electronics companies. While both sides agreed on the development of single-stream Cablecards, they battled bitterly over how the cards would handle multiple streams. Fortunately, the FCC rules did not require multi-streaming to be part of the standard.
Types of Cablecards
Two types of Cablecards are available to consumers, and both types can be used in any Cablecard TV. Single-stream cards, also known as S-cards, can only decode one channel at a time. S-cards actually use the older Cablecard 1.0 standard, but all host devices are backward compatible.
Multi-stream cards, or M-cards, can decode up to six cable channels simultaneously. However, if these cards are used in host devices that only comply with Cablecard 1.0, then they will operate as S-cards while they are inserted into them. Multi-stream capability is essential to many television components, including DVRs. Without an M-card, a person could not watch one channel while the DVR is recording another. In addition, the picture-in-picture features included in many TVs would not be functional.
As of 2012, Cablecards were being manufactured by six companies: Cisco, Conax USA, Evolution Broadband, Motorola, Nagravision and NDS Group. Cable companies have resisted the use of these cards since they were first developed, but by 2009, they had caught on with many TV viewers in the United States. In February 2006, only 141,000 cards were in use, but by June 2009, over 14 million cards were being used in cable boxes and another 437,800 were being used in retail electronics.
Later in 2009, the FCC released a public notice titled “Comment Sought on Video Device Innovation.” In this report, the FCC admitted that the deployment of Cablecards resulted in only limited success. The FCC cited the fact that only 14 models of set-top cable boxes were available on the retail market compared to 879 models of cell phones.
Another reason for stating that Cablecards were only a limited success is that innovation in video devices seems to have bypassed cable television completely. The Cablecard was made to be included in more powerful and innovative set-top boxes, but all of the new products released have omitted this functionality completely, including PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Apple TV, Roku and other video-streaming boxes.