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The Clicker: CableCARD and OpenCable

Peter Rojas
Every Thursday Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, a weekly column on television and technology:

In theory, it sounds like a good idea: "The networks will be open. OpenCable will free people from the repressive shackles of their cable boxes. We will all live in a cable-box-less utopia." In reality, OpenCable is closer to the bastard child of greed and fear.

The FCC, playing its long-standing role as "greed," was (and is) desperate to get its analog band back from the broadcasters. Knowing this only happens once enough consumers are capable of receiving digital signals, the FCC eagerly pushed for TV sets to include digital capabilities. Cable companies, worried that tougher regulations would be the result of this greed, were willing to compromise. Thus the OpenCable system and CableCARD, the hardware that allows a TV or a set-top box to hook up to it, were born.

So what are CableCARDs?

About the size of PCMCIA cards, a CableCARD is a conditional-access device that is inserted into a small slot on a CableCARD-compatible TV. The CableCARD is then paired with your digital-cable subscription service and voila! - digital cable is delivered straight to your TV. The CableCARD handles all the decryption and tells the TV which channels you subscribe to. There's no need for a cable box. You just plug your coax straight from the wall into the TV and it just works! Well... sort of.

As it turns out, most people have grown accustomed to some of the features of their cable boxes. For instance, if you have come to rely on an integrated Electronic Program Guide, chances are you won't get it (or it will be buggy) if you're using a CableCARD-enabled TV. If you want to partake in any of the new VOD (Video On Demand) services being offered by cable companies, you're out of luck. So too will you lose Pay-Per-View. You see, VOD and PPV require two-way communication between your box and the cable company's system. The current implementation of OpenCable is unidirectional.

It's a bare-bones approach to digital cable.

But aren't CableCARDs the perfect solution for HD PVRs?

Certainly CableCARDs are a step in the right direction. In the case of HD PVRs, the CableCARD is inserted into the PVR instead of the TV. This gives third-party PVR manufacturers access to the digital cable stream, which makes the development of third-party HD PVRs at least possible. However, the cable companies are not making it easy.

In order for PVR manufacturers to produce an OpenCable device, they must first receive certification from CableLabs, the regulating body. This is a rigorous process to begin with, but it gets even more difficult if you're trying to deviate from the OpenCable Host Device Specifications.

OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform) and OpenCable Host Device Specifications were developed by CableLabs to allow cable companies to push both their "look and feel" and their features to consumer electronics devices. If a company like TiVo hopes to add their own look and feel (along with their own features) to an OpenCable set-top box, they must apply for certification. During this process, they must convince CableLabs that their security story is tight and that they have satisfied the many other requirements. To say that CableLabs has been reluctant to expedite this certification process is an understatement.

In a letter to the FCC on January 18, TiVo Vice-President Matthew P. Zinn had some harsh words for the cable companies and their current implementation of OpenCable, saying, "It is abundantly clear that cable's 'support' of CableCARD fundamentally conflicts with cable's own market imperatives... There is little doubt that cable would support [an OCAP implementation]... Such products, however, do not provide consumers with a competitive alternative to operator-supplied integrated set-top boxes... All they do is provide consumers the choice between leasing a box from cable or buying essentially the very same box from Samsung or LG Electronics... In other words," Zinn continues, "you can lease a Honda Accord from your cable operator or you can buy a Honda Accord."

Third-party PVR makers such as TiVo are further frustrated by the grudging, "only-what-we-must" attitude displayed by the cable companies. Specifically, under the current implementation of OpenCable, cable companies are only required to support and lease single-stream CableCARDs. This means that third-party manufacturers are unable to produce dual-tuner PVRs without incorporating TWO CableCARDs.

At this year's CES TiVo announced its plans to deliver such a device (i.e. a dual-tuner OpenCable PVR that utilizes two CableCARDs). However, TiVo said of it "[TiVo has] little confidence that such a product would be supported adequately by cable providers. It would be an expensive and unwieldy device with increased hardware cost [and] increased customer costs resulting from the need to lease two CableCARDs."

Specifications for M-Cards (Multi-Stream CableCARDs) have been set since September of 2003. Yet, none have been produced. More disconcerting is the fact that there is no deadline for the inclusion of M-Cards. There is only a vague agreement that cable companies will work to expedite a transition to M-Cards. Yeah and I've never waited all day for the cable company.

So what was TiVo's solution to the problem?

A mere three months after TiVo chastised the cable companies, TiVo woke up, struck a deal with Comcast, and prepared to ask the world, "Would you like to lease a Honda Accord with that cable subscription?"

Assuming that TiVo (due to its new relationship with Comcast) stops being the staunch advocate for advances in CableCARD technology, who will fight for the consumer?

That's unclear - the FCC has shown no strong signs that they will be fighting for the consumer. Recently, a July 2006 deadline that would have banned cable companies from producing any new "integrated" (i.e., not OpenCable) set-top boxes was pushed back by at least another year. Many assume that the cable companies will use the delay to argue that the mandate for OpenCable is unfair and unduly regulates the cable segment of the market. Worse yet, they might be successful. After all, with the emergence of IPTV and the entry of SBC and Verizon into the subscription TV game, it's hard to argue that only the traditional cable players should be bound by such regulations. In any case, few expect the ban to go into effect even by its delayed July 2007 deadline.

It might be easy to assume that with rumors of an OpenCable-compatible Media Center Edition in the works, Microsoft will be fighting for the consumers. However, in a recent letter to the FCC, Microsoft joined Comcast (never a good sign) in arguing that the ban on integrated set-top boxes be delayed. With Microsoft participating in so many different segments of the cable market (e.g. Comcast already runs Microsoft Foundation Edition software on many of its current boxes and Microsoft has signed deals with both SBS and Verizon regarding IPTV) it's unclear whether Microsoft would be willing to rock the boat.

What's the big deal? You're still paying for cable. Why would the cable companies care what box you use?

The answer is simple - MONEY. It's hard to imagine, but the cable company is counting on the extra money that "value-add" services bring to the table. Services such as pay-per-view, music purchases, micro-content, etc. have been estimated to be a multi-billion dollar business. In order to get its cut from the content providers, a cable company such as Comcast needs to offer those services through its own look and feel.

As you can imagine, cable companies are wary of being cut out of that market by companies like TiVo offering value-add services through their own custom user interfaces (hence the stringent and lengthy OpenCable certification process). There's no question that content services are a big business, and cable probably should be a little scared. In January 2004 TiVo purchased Strangeberry, an internet-based content distribution service. Microsoft has created an "Online Spotlight" in its Media Center Edition and has partnerships with numerous content-providers, including CinemaNow and Movielink.

So what's the future of OpenCable?

Most likely, OpenCable will, for all intents and purposes, end with V1. Oh sure, they're working on a specification for the next generation. However, the earliest that you might hope to see it is July 2007, and, by then, they'll probably be on to something else.

In the meantime, we just need to hope that enough PVR manufacturers make it through the certification process to give us some real alternatives when it comes to HD PVRs.

If you have comments or suggestions for future columns, feel free to drop me a line at

Until next week - Save my seat!

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