Commentary

CableCard: Whatever Happened To That?

I found myself sifting through a few technical rants over the weekend and came upon a reference to "CableCard," a term that was pretty hot just a year or two ago and signified big things for the future. The last time I actually saw a reference to CableCard was when I bought my high-definition set, and the somewhat corny sales guy was actually trying to suggest that CableCard was a big-selling feature. What a dope! I was in the showroom for a 1080P display, (beginning and the end of the story) everything else being entirely ho-hum or beyond my interest level.

If you recall, CableCard was supposed to be a big boon for cable subscribers, essentially obviating the need for cable set top boxes at each set in the home. The card would carry all the "special stuff" to replace the set top box. Subscribers would get away from rental fees for set top boxes and operators would graduate away from installing boxes in homes. CableCard was also intended to usher in a new round of services to subscribers. Finally, the Federal Communications Commission said that CableCard was a good thing. What else could be more motivating?

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Upon reflection, millions of sets have been built and sold with CableCard slots built in -- and yet today, perhaps 2-3% of those sets actually have a CableCard provided by a local operator. So what gives? If you call your local operator, most don't have CableCards available. So why hasn't CableCard taken off, especially when you consider that the CableCard slot adds $50-75 in cost for every recent set manufactured and sold? Bad idea? Dead on arrival? What's the deal?

CableCard is like any other technology in that the first implementation is usually the worst implementation. Version 1.0 of CableCard, while workable, is not a raging success. The reasons are myriad. Some bugs for sure, but a few operators are beginning to make CableCards available to fit those cute little slots on the back of our sets.

But most CableCard implementations don't seem to support interactive and premium digital services, which may be why operators haven't fully embraced CableCard as yet. Operator priorities are no doubt focused on moving subs to the digital tier (conversion), making VOD a success, deploying DVR, pushing telephony and broadband. If that's correct, then CableCard may take a while. Like anything else, working our the kinks is key, as is dealing with more important business priorities. Cable is toughening up for teleco competition --and CableCard, while promising, just isn't a differentiator, at least not yet. And so my HDTV beauty sits with an empty CableCard slot -- but heck, that 1080P up conversion is solid gold!

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