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CableCARDs: Cause for Joy, and Pain

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motorola_cablecardI’ve been hearing about the CableCARD for years. How this little device — just about the size of an extra-thick credit card — will eliminate the need for a cable box. How it’ll cut down on the clutter surrounding my TV. How it’ll make my entire TV viewing experience easier, better.

And maybe it will. If I can ever get the darn thing working.

CableCARDs slide into the back of TVs, DVRs and other devices, delivering decrypted cable signals without a cable box. The newest version of a CableCARD is the multistream card, also known as an M-Card. An M-Card offers dual tuners, so you can, for example, record one channel while watching another. A single-stream CableCARD can tune in to only a single channel. You get CableCARDs from your cable company, just as you would get a cable box, and pay both an installation fee and a monthly rental fee that’s comparable to what you’d pay for a cable box, maybe a few dollars cheaper.

While a CableCARD may not save you tons of money on your cable bill, it offers other benefits. A CableCARD not only eliminates the cable box, but it cuts out all of the clutter that goes with it. You can say goodbye to your extra wires, numerous remotes, and IR blasters. And it has benefits for the cable company, too: A CableCARD must be paired with one specific device, whether that’s a TV, a DVR, or some other set-top box. If you remove it from the device, it won’t work, which should eliminate the problem of stolen cable.

So cable companies should love CableCARDs, and we should, too. Still, there are few devices and consumers who are taking advantage of what CableCARDs can offer. Why?

One reason is price. Sure, a CableCARD is cheaper than renting an HD DVR from your cable company. But buying your own HD DVR can set you back anywhere from $300 to $600 — or more. And if you’re looking for a TV with a CableCARD slot, you’re not looking in the bargain bin.

Another issue is lack of awareness. Try telling someone who’s not an entertainment junkie about CableCARDs and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. You also have to factor in that CableCARDs can’t always offer everything that a cable box can, such as access to an on-demand library of shows. That could be a deal breaker for many people.

Then there’s the hassle. I have a Verizon FiOS HD DVR. I ordered it; the man showed up in the van, hooked it up, and before I knew it, I was DVR-ing Lost to my heart’s content. Contrast that with my CableCARD experience: Sure, the tech guy could carry it in his pocket, but it took two days, multiple calls to tech support, and four different visits from Verizon technicians to get it up and running. (Remind me again how it’s easier than using a cable box?)

I know many people have had a much easier time getting their CableCARDs up and running, but I also know I’m not the only one who’s had installation woes. And still more people have had trouble getting their hands on the cards at all. Online forums are littered with stories of people who’ve been unable to get the cards from their cable companies, but it’s unclear whether that’s because the phone reps were unfamiliar with the technology, or because the cable companies were pushing people toward their own products, rather then third-party alternatives like TiVo DVRs.

And the more that those third-party products die out (though I’m still holding onto hope that TiVo will survive), the less chance there is that anyone, anywhere will be using CableCARDs. So where does that leave this technology? Will it ever break through and reach mainstream status? I wish it would. I’d love to ditch my cable box, while still having access to all its features, of course. I think that day will come. I just wish it would get here a little bit sooner.

14 Responses to “CableCARDs: Cause for Joy, and Pain”

  1. I have a Tivo HD which uses cablecards, which I use comcast cable service. I like the tivo alot and last year Tivo signed an agreement with comcast to use their software for their DVRs. However I do admit I don’t like paying full price for cable tv and not having all the abilites that anyone with a cable box does have, ON-Demand. I am able to use the TV Guide but it is the Tivo one which works great. I just wish that the cable compaies would get upgraded and use this is a standard. I like not having a box and all the clutter that goes with it. I don’t understand why they would want to spend more money buying boxes and repairing them when cards are cheaper all around. If they spend just a little of that money they use to market and give us full 2 way cablecards so we can all the services that one gets with a box that maybe the makers of TV would follow and give us cable cards for tvs and other devices. I personally don’t want to spend more and more money for cable tv and having to pay another 10 bucks for a cable box is crazy and then more money for their DVR.

  2. Question for the tech savy: I have a Sony LCD Projection HDTV-KDF-E42A10 that in the last month replaced the cable card twice. When the cable guy is here it works fine. I turn the the TV off and when I turn it back on–no signal and I have to re-set the cable card–works about a week and now for the second time no signal at all. When I remove the cable card and re-program only NTSC signal, no Qam or HD signal. No one at the cable company knows anything about cable cards. Any help–They tell me when I call in that they have sent a “hit” to my card but nothing. Thanks

  3. Come on, man – how many times have we debated this? Yes, I could have phrased it better. And yes technically we can move these PCMCIA cards between cable-co boxes and retail devices. But we both know the reality is the retail manufacturers could not implement two way capabilities until the tuning adapter hack or tru2way (which are CableCARD devices). So yes, it’s not technically a failure of the CableCARD. It’s a failure of the cable industry. And the FCC to enforce their will. I’m sure the CE manufacturers share the blame as well. tru2way will save us, right? ;)

  4. Thatnks for the clarification, Dave, but I have to correct something: “CableCARDs used in current retail boxes are not capable of two-way services…”

    It’s the devices that are one-way or two-way, not the CableCARDs. As you point out, they are simply authorization devices. The new two-way tru2way sets also need CableCARDs.

  5. xdreamwalker

    @DaveZatz I am in Michigan on Comcast. I have three cableCARDs. I am charged just $1.50 for the cards, the first in the device is free and since my S3 TiVo has two I have to pay 1.50. I also get charged for two AO fees. It’s nice that the TiVoHD can use the multi card for free with just the AO fee.

  6. Some factual errors and omissions here… CableCARDs are NOT tuners, they are separable security devices. Multristream cards (M-Cards) support dual hardware tuners/tuning.

    Also the fees are all over the board. My 3 CableCARDs were installed free and some franchises don’t require truck rolls, though many (most?) do. Additionally, card rate varies. I think Comcast’s official policy in my area is the first card is free and additional cards are $1.50/mo which may or may not come with an ‘additional outlet’ (AO) fee. However, all three of my cards are free ‘rentals’ and I’m not charged outlet fees.

    In addition to consumer confusion or ignorance, CableCARDs used in current retail boxes are not capable of two-way services like video on demand (VOD) or handling switched digital video (SDV). However, the future (perhaps) lies in tru2way – a common platform to enable that. However it may require you get stuck with the crappy cableco UI on your third party device, like HDTV. And you mention things dying out, yet tru2way is just getting rolling… and all the major cable-cos and many CE vendors have signed on.

    Lastly, there was a move afoot to meet the FCC’s separable security mandate via software, rather than hardware pairing/authentication. Not sure where that stands.

  7. Yeah.. I can’t tell you how many problems we have had with Cable card configurations. Just another reason the cable companies are going to lose the battle with Sites like Hulu. Using PlayOn to watch sites like CBS, The Food Network, NFL, NBA, HGTV and more is def the way of the future. Now there is so much on.. you may get nothing done for weeks.

    The Fuzz

  8. All of your comments about your experiences with cableCARDs are very interesting. It really does seem like this technology, which had so much promise, is just not living up to its potential. The fact that cableCARDs are only a one-way technology really does limit their appeal. I’m hearing a lot abotu Tru2Way technology now; may it will live up to the hype the way cableCARDs never could?
    P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

  9. Liane Cassavoy

    All of your comments about your experiences with cableCARDs are very interesting. It really does seem like this technology, which had so much promise, is just not living up to its potential. The fact that cableCARDs are only a one-way technology really does limit their appeal. I’m hearing a lot abotu Tru2Way technology now; may it will live up to the hype the way cableCARDs never could?

  10. CableCARDs are not a complete replacement for a cable set-top box. First of all they only support one way services. So, as Tige says above, they don’t support VOD, or any other “two way” service like the cable program guide or any of the promised interactive services that are coming. Second, if you want DVR support you have to install the CableCARD into a device that supports DVR like TiVo. A HDTV with CableCARD will not give you DVR. For multiple tuner support (to record 2 shows at once for example) you need not only the multi-stream “MCard” CableCARD but you still need a device (TV set, TiVo, set-top, etc.) that has 2 tuners.

  11. “(Remind me again how it’s easier than using a cable box?)”

    It would be easier if the cable companies worked on cable card issues instead of creating them by having untrained techs come out multiple times to plug a PCMCIA card in and out of my TiVo DVR then read off some numbers to a tech on the phone. Big whoop. They then charge an installation fee because they can’t figure out how to get it to work the first time and if you’re lucky enough that it still doesn’t work after a 2nd visit you can get it refunded.

    The worst experience so far was when Cox was performing maintenance on the system and my Cable Card was fine for about 8 months, everything went down, I called in after 30 minutes and the person did not know of the maintenance, and began doing stuff to my card and broke it remotely. After 4 phone calls and hours on hold, I learned the maintenance they performed was removing some channels I pay for from regular Digital Cable to Switched Digital Video. Because I called tech support when the system was messed up and they messed up the cablecard resulting in 3 truck rolls.

    While the experience when dealing with the cable company and their techs is very poor. The experience gained by using my TiVo and a M-card type Cable Card over the ridiculously stupid hard to use, expensive DVR hardware cable companies tout as fantastic and life changing, mostly makes up for it if you can overlook the outrageous monthly Cable TV Prices.

    Cable Cards don’t seem to have brought much competition to the game, it just seems to have given Cable companies another excuse to continue doing what they do best which is nothing at all, waste customer time while getting paid, not provide new services, and over charge due to lack of competition.

  12. Cable companies (and that includes FIOS) make it hard to get Cablecards installed. I can only assume that is because they want to control the end-to-end customer experience and associated monetization opportunities (once you have a Cablecard in your Tivo, for example, you no longer use Comcast’s / FIOS’s program guide, which reduces the way they can influence you either through paid advertising on the PG or through promotional placement of certain programming on the PG).

    I have Cablecards in my HD Tivo on Comcast and they work great (except, as noted, there is no access to on-demand programming because they are one-way devices). But getting Comcast to install them was a true headache.

    I have recently lived through an equally difficult time getting FIOS to install a Cablecard. Most of their “customer service” reps not only have no idea what Cablecards are but cannot even place the order for you when specifically asked. It’s ridiculous how hard it is to get one installed (again, they THINK it’s in their best interest to make installation hard – I think that not giving the customer what they want is bad long term strategy but, alas, I digress).

    In any event, I FINALLY found the right number to call at Verizon to talk to a person who understands Cablecards: it’s the FIOS business office — they can take your order for you — and the phone number is 410-265-0577. My installation is scheduled but not yet complete so my fingers are crossed …