The case of the missing CableCARD-ready set-top box

Whither CableCARD?

The ban hammer fell on July 1, 2007. That's the date the FCC set for its "integration ban" to prevent cable TV operators from deploying set-top boxes with integrated decryption and security systems. The goal was to make the cable companies use separable security—i.e., CableCARD—so that everyone in the market was playing the same game on the same field with the same rules. The FCC hoped that a flood of third-party boxes would make use of CableCARD so widespread that consumers would have options beyond the ones that the cable company offers. 老域名购买

That has not happened. Three months after the ban went into effect, digging up a third-party, CableCARD-ready set-top box can be an exercise in hair-pulling frustration. The companies who make the boxes don't seem interested in selling to consumers, cable companies still push their own branded devices, and Best Buy employees… well, the less said the better.

We've heard the pain of our readers on this issue. One of them described his own epic (and fruitless) quest to secure such a device. His conclusion? "Although I should be able to buy a set-top box of my own, nobody will sell me one. I am standing on the doorstep, wad of cash in hand, yelling, 'Please take my money! I want to buy!' but am turned away."

What's going on?

Playing on the same field

First, a little background. The CableCARD was created by CableLabs, the research arm of the cable industry, after the FCC required the industry to separate the security and navigation functions of its boxes several years ago. Before this, television manufacturers and device makers generally had no way to access scrambled digital signals, which relied on secret mojo hidden deep within cable boxes. This put the cable operators in control of the cable experience; they would offer the boxes, they would offer the devices (such as DVRs), and they would control the experience. CableCARD was an attempt to make the security portion of these boxes something separate that anyone could incorporate into their own devices.

It works (sort of), though horror stories about botched installs, clueless techs, and hours of waiting for activation pings from cable company headends litter the Internet. The big drawback at the moment is that the CableCARD ecosystem is currently one-way, which rules out services that need a return channel to the central office, like video on demand (VOD) and many electronic program guides (EPGs). (While the cards themselves are capable of two-way operation, only a few consumer host devices even "officially" support this feature and none appear to be yet available in stores).

But the catch was that the cable company became the only entity able to provide cards to customers, and the incentive for them to get this right simply wasn't there. The industry spilled plenty of ink talking about its commitment to CableCARD, but the sheer number of problems that continue to crop up today, years after the devices were first released, suggests that CableCARD support is not generally Job One at these companies. And why should it be? Rental prices are low, often a buck or two a month, and consumers who use third-party devices create support problems when the TV doesn't work and they call the local cable operator first.

Until this summer, cable operators were required to support CableCARDs and to issue them to customers who requested them, but they were not required to use the cards themselves. Instead, they could continue to push the (cheaper) models with integrated security. This, perhaps as much as anything, meant that CableCARD-related bugs, snafus, and general unpleasantness didn't affect cable company-provided gear, and the cable operators were much happier just to encourage users to take their own gear than they were to spend time and money making the whole third-party ecosystem into a workable reality.

Beginning in July, though, cable operators became subject to the "integration ban" and could no longer offer most CableCARD-free cable boxes. With the cable companies forced to play on the same field as the third-party players, a viable market for "navigation devices" was expected to develop. As we noted above, that hasn't happened yet.