April 15, 2008
In 1996 Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, which included a provision requiring cable companies to move cable security (descrambling) to external devices. The purpose was to break the cablebox duopoly and to open up a competitive market for cableboxes, as well as for televisions with built-in cable tuning and descrambling capabilities.

The external device was given the name CableCARD. The TV makers quickly responded by building over 10.1 million HDTVs with CableCARD slots through 2007 and has plans to add another 4.87 M+ HDTVs in 2008 (Consumer Electronics Association forecast). For the first time, consumers (with a CableCARD ready set) could hang a flat panel on the wall and watch all subscribed to standard and premium cable content without the extra wires and a shelf required for a cablebox. Now the cable industry has begun to roll out its plan to disable at least part of the content accessible to the CableCARD in CableCARD equipped HDTVs!

Time-Warner and Cablevision have announced they are adding a new technology to their systems that will keep CableCARD ready HDTVs from receiving a number of HD channels. Furthermore, a cable industry source told the HD Guru that all of the major cable providers will be incorporating this new system called “Switched Digital Video” (SDV) into their respective areas over the next few years. The result will be that the extra money consumers spent for the convenience of CableCARD ready HDTVs will have been wasted!

How did this occur? After Congress passed the telecommunications law, the FCC was put in charge of getting the cable and consumer electronics industry to incorporate it. The FCC granted the cable providers several delays, and when they ran out, the FCC allowed the cable industry to approve a limited function CableCARD that is unidirectional, preventing consumers to access video-on-demand (VOD) or impulse pay per view programming. The cable industry was also required to add CableCARD slots to their own cable boxes, but miraculously, its own boxes, (with over 90%) supplied by either Cisco (formally known as Scientific Atlanta) or Motorola, maintain the bi-directional functionality needed for impulse pay per view and VOD (and coincidentally SDV). The Cable industry got to maintain a two class system, one level of functionality for consumers that wanted cable tuning built into an HDTV and a higher level for consumers that chose to rent (at higher cost) a cable box from the provider, effectively bypassing Congress’ intent to open up a competitive market.

This one-way/two-way issue, is the reason you will lose HD programming if you continue to use a CableCARD in your television. The cable industry’s current systems lack the bandwidth to allow them to keep adding new HDTV channels. With satellite providers Dish Network and DirecTV promising over 100 HD channels by year’s end, the cable industry says they need to increase its capacity and “Switched Digital Video” allows them to add more channels without expanding their systems. However, once your cable provider enables SDV, any channel that is “switched” will be blacked out to consumers using a CableCARD in their HDTVs.

What’s The cable industry’s response? They claimed in November 2007 that through its testing, standards, and research arm called “Cablelabs” it has developed a “Tuning Adapter” that will allow CableCARD devices such as HDTVs and HD TiVos to continue to receive all subscribed HDTV channels. Here is an excerpt for the press release “The adapter will work on any (CableCARD) Unidirectional Digital Cable Ready Product (UDCP) that has a USB connector and necessary firmware. The cable industry is working with TiVo to ensure that installation of CableCARDs and the adapter will be easy and seamless for the consumer.” The press release goes on to say it will be available in the 2nd quarter of 2008.

Now for the reality. The HD Guruâ„¢ has surveyed several makers of CableCARD ready sets, and all said their sets were never designed to add such a device and even if their respective sets have USB ports, they will not be able to accept such an adapter.

So this leaves only the owners of high definition TiVo DVRs. The adapter device should work with HD TiVos, however, according to a Cisco spokesperson, its version is now undergoing testing at Cablelabs and is not expected to be released until sometime this summer. A Motorola source would not provide any status or a release date, likely missing the promised availability in the second quarter 2008.

So you now own a CableCARD HDTV, what will happen to you and what can you do about it? I contacted Cablevision, a NY metro cable provider for answers.

Cablevision will begin its rollout of SDV beginning April 15, 2008. CableCARD users will immediately lose all of Cablevision’s 15 HD Voom channels which represent one-third of all its high definition channels. (Are more HD channels going away? I could not get a response) Cablevision has offered current CableCARD subscribers a Cisco HD cablebox for one year without charge to maintain receiving all of its HD channels. After the year you must pay $6.95/month for the box. (Its CableCARD rental fee is less than $2 a month). If you want to hold on to your CableCARD, you will pay the same subscription fee as you did last month, no discount for the lost channels, one heck of a deal.

If you own a CableCARD HDTV and are not happy with this, the HD Guru™ suggests you file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, they have complaint forms at their website http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/complaints.html . You should also write a complaint to your Representive (find him/her at https://forms.house.gov/wyr/welcome.shtml) and your state’s US Senators. They are the ones that passed the Telecommunications Act.

Copyright ©2008 Gary Merson/HD Guru™. All rights reserved. The content and photos within may not be distributed electronically or copied mechanically without specific written permission.