CableCARD, SDV, and the Perils of Foot-Dragging
CableCARD, SDV, and the Perils of Foot-Dragging
CableCARD, SDV, and the Perils of Foot-Dragging

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    CableCARD is broken. Public Knowledge has already addressed the issue of the cable industry's reluctance and general foot-dragging over complying with the CableCARD standard. Apart from this, technological changes have all but made it so that CableCARD is obsolete before it is even fully adopted. The opportunity to develop a successor to CableCARD ought to be used as an opportunity to safeguard consumer choice and freedom, and to increase competition among hardware providers. But instead it would seem that some in the cable industry would like for whatever replaces CableCARD to be so weak that their monopoly over set-top boxes and other video equipment is assured. A consumer's ability to make fair and legal use of the content he buys would also suffer. Do you want one less ugly box sitting on top of your TV? How about the ability to easily record TV shows and watch them on your iPod? If the cable industry gets its way, you're out of luck.

    Why CableCARD is Broken

    As a consumer, a channel is a channel. Normally, a customer shouldn't care about how things work, just that they work. It's annoying to have to figure out the details, for instance, of how a particular TV channel gets from the ether and onto the screen. You shouldn't have to worry about what kind of channel you're watching, just what's on.

    But if you have a CableCARD device, you may have to care. That's because technological restrictions block what CableCARD users are able to do with their devices, and there's no way to understand these limitations unless you have a grasp of the technology.

    Cable companies are beginning to deliver TV channels via a new technology called Switched Digital Video (“SDV”), . Normally, cable works like broadcast: all channels are sent out and the viewer just “tunes in” what she would like to see. But SDV sends only one channel down the wire, the one that the consumer has selected to watch (or record). SDV allows cable companies to save on bandwidth by only sending programming that the user has actually asked for when switching channels. A consumer shouldn't notice any difference, SDV works just like regular old channel surfing–go up or down on your remote and the programming shows up just as it always has. SDV is a great idea that saves bandwidth which can then be used to offer more channels or higher-speed Internet service. However, SDV was not made to work with CableCARD.

    If you use a CableCARD, you have inferior or no access to interactive program guides, pay-per-view, and video-on-demand. Now, with more cable companies rolling out SDV, whole swathes of channels may be hidden from you. Even before it is fully implemented, technological change has made it so that CableCARD is not compliant with Congress's mandate of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, to “assure the commercial availability to consumers … of converter boxes, interactive communications equipment, and other equipment used by consumers to access … video programming and other services offered over … video programming systems, from manufacturers, retailers, and other vendors not affiliated with any … video programming distributor.” 47 USC § 549. Even if CableCARD were fully adopted, SDV would not comply with the law. The cable industry cannot reserve some kinds of basic video services only for themselves and their specialized hardware.

    It's Not the Technology's Fault

    CableCARD was developed years ago. SDV is new. The fact that CableCARD does not work with new technologies is to be expected. What's sad that the cable industry has so drawn out the process of adopting CableCARD and complying with the FCC that the technology is outdated before it has even had its chance to shine.

    The law does not mandate CableCARD or any other specific technology. Had the cable industry worked with third-party device makers, would it have been possible to roll out SDV or a service like it and still comply with the law? Now, there is no way of knowing. Instead, while some have been dragging their heels on CableCARD, the cable industry has privately developed new technologies that make it obsolete.

    What's Next?

    Even the cable industry realizes that the current situation is not tenable. Having changed the conditions of the marketplace such that compliance with the law is impossible, they now propose to change the rules of the game in ways beneficial only to them. A few proposals for the successor to CableCARD are in the works, and I will discuss them in a later post.

    All of the proposed successors allow for two-way communication between the device and the “head end” of the cable service. This kind of communication is necessary to allow technologies like SDV and other on-demand services.

    The opportunity presented by the need to develop a successor to CableCARD ought to be used to ensure increased competition among hardware manufacturers, as well as to safeguard consumer choice and freedom. Not only should there be real competition in the hardware space, but both the consumer electronics industry and the cable industry need to make sure that their customers are able to make fair use of the content that they have legally obtained.

    Public Knowledge believes that whatever the successor to CableCARD ends up being, it needs to secure these essential consumer rights.