Cablecards are small PCMCIA cards that contain all the components necessary to unscramble the signals from cable TV providers so that they play on the televisions to which they are connected. Satellite TV and Cable TV providers were forced to develop and distribute these cards after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was signed into law. While the benefits of these cards have not been fully realized, they offer cable subscribers the ability to watch cable channels without set-top boxes or with boxes purchased from third-party manufacturers.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 made the FCC responsible for overseeing the development of technologies that would allow third-party electronics manufacturers to market devices that could be used to navigate through the services offered by multichannel video-programming providers. After years of development and negotiations, it was decided that a standardized device based on PCMCIA computer cards was the answer.
The first Cablecards, dubbed by the FCC as point-of-deployment modules (PODs), became available in 2004. These cards can be inserted into set-top boxes, digital-ready TVs and other devices to decode cable TV signals. The cards are available from all cable providers upon request. Subscribers may have to pay a fee to lease the cards, but this fee is often less than the fee for leasing set-top boxes.
Benefits of Cablecards
TV cards have several advantages over the technologies employed by cable companies in the past. As cited by the FCC, these cards open cable equipment to the larger retail market. This allows customers to choose from set-top boxes, multifunctional video/gaming systems or digital-ready TVs with card slots. One day, retail electronics manufacturers may develop an all-in-one box that plays video games, plays Blu-ray discs, streams video from online sources or from local hard drives and unscrambles cable TV channels.
For many, a set-top box dedicated to decoding cable channels takes up too much space, and the boxes leased to customers by cable companies are not always aesthetically appealing. It can also be difficult and unsightly to stack several peripheral devices near the TV when they can be consolidated into a single unit. Cable subscribers who do not use other peripheral devices could get rid of them completely by simply purchasing card-compatible TVs.
Another advantage of using a card to descramble cable channels is that many viewers have reported receiving enhanced picture quality when using them. This phenomenon is attributed to the use of higher quality internal components. Manufacturers of old set-top boxes that didn’t use cards often introduced low-quality components into their boxes and tried to cover up the poor quality by including additional features.
A final benefit to using a card instead of a box is that the cards can be used with desktop or laptop computers equipped with standard PCMCIA slots. Many laptops come with PCMIA readers preinstalled. When a card is connected directly to a computer, it can be used to watch cable channels and record programs like a digital video recorder (DVR). Cable subscribers running Windows 7 on their computers can take advantage of the Digital Cable Advisor tool by Microsoft to determine whether they are compatible with the cards.
Drawbacks of Cablecards
Although the cards for cable TV have several advantages, they also suffer from a few drawbacks, which have caused electronics manufacturers to become hesitant to include the technology in their devices. In fact, the FCC mentioned in a public notice that the card system had suffered from limited success because manufacturers have not developed as many new devices as they had hoped. As of 2009, only 14 retail devices were available to the public that supported the cards, and all of them were dedicated set-top boxes. As a comparison, over 879 models of cells phones were available at that time.
Another drawback is that the cards currently using the 2.0 standard are only one-way devices. This means that they can accept incoming signals from the cable company, but they cannot send outgoing signals from viewers. Two-way communication is required for some cable services and features that have become indispensable to many subscribers, including video on demand (VOD) and electronic program guides (EPGs). Even if they have digital-ready TVs, subscribers still opt for set-top boxes that support these features. The only solutions to this problem are to purchase a separate DVR and to use a TV that comes with a preinstalled, third-party EPG.
TVs and other retail equipment that support these cards can be very expensive. In some cases, a TV with a card slot can cost $1,000 more than a TV without one. In addition, many cable subscribers are unwilling to pay the high upfront cost of retail devices when they can lease standard set-top boxes from the cable company free of charge or for as little as $5.00 per month.
Finally, the current generation of cards is quickly becoming obsolete, and the FCC is scrambling for ideas to either replace them or upgrade them. Replacements and upgrades take time because there is so much bureaucratic red tape involved and because several powerful factions will argue over which technology should become standardized.