Why Consumers Should Care about CableCARD
Why Consumers Should Care about CableCARD
Why Consumers Should Care about CableCARD

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    Recently, a number of groups sent out a letter urging the FCC to enforce its own rules on the issue of CableCARD. CableCARD is somewhat of an obscure issue, but as consumers rush to the store to buy the latest gadget this holiday season, they may increasingly be learning more about the intricacies of how to hook-up their HDTV or Series 3 TiVO to their cable service. Consumers should care about CableCARD because it is what allows digital device manufacturers to compete against that digital cable set-top box and provide better features and prices.

    Previously, a cable subscriber had little to no choice but to lease a digital set-top box from his particular cable provider. A cheaper box could not be bought from another supplier because only the cable provider's set-top box (STB) would work and allow access to the cable channels. This is because older and many current STBs are “integrated,” meaning they perform both security (i.e. decryption of the cable signals) and non-security functions.

    The main problem is that integrated STBs tie and extend a cable provider's control over the security functions to the non-security features such as receiving and changing cable channels. While it is understandable why cable providers should control the security aspects of their network–to identify subscribers and allow them to descramble the television signals–they should not be able to extend this control (some might even call it monopoly power) over the non-security components. This is where the FCC and CableCARD come in.

    In 1998, the FCC implemented §629 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which directed the FCC to “adopt regulations to assure the commercial availability” of devices used by consumers to access cable channels. The decision was to split the security and non-security functionality of the integrated STBs so that each can be performed by competitive devices. The industry solution was CableCARD–essentially a thick, credit-card-sized piece of hardware that can be inserted into a slot in a “host navigation device” such as a non-integrated set-top box, a digital television set, or even the latest TiVO. Since CableCARD performs only the security function, it gives other retailers the opportunity to provide additional and innovative features in a competitive market and at lower costs for consumers.

    Okay, so why are we talking about this today–these regulations were effective in 1998, right? True, but some in the cable industry have been delaying and postponing, and most recently asked the FCC for waivers so as not to have to fully comply with the regulations. In our group letter, we called their actions “anti-consumer,” and Gigi called on the FCC to “enforce the rules, and give consumers the benefits of competition and innovation.”

    Yes, CableCARD is an obscure issue, but it's one that consumers should care about. It directly impacts consumers in their pocketbook (for monthly rental cable set-top box fees) and with their choice of the latest innovative products on store shelves.