The Golden Age of CableCARD Has Arrived

Dave Zatz —  August 26, 2011 — 31 Comments

ZNF regular Chucky routinely proclaims that we live in the Golden Age of CableCARD. While I had my doubts in the FCC’s ability to enact reform, I stand corrected and believe that era has indeed arrived. Most large cable providers now provide CableCARDs with simplified pricing and without requiring a truck roll. Further, staff finally seems to understand what CableCARD is all about.

I’d break down the evolution of CableCARD into three distinct periods — after its rather lengthy gestation period. The first age featured a variety of single stream capable devices (’04 – ’06) including televisions from the likes of Samsung and a pair of retail Sony DVRs. Unfortunately, the manufacturers largely beat the cablecos, who were ill-prepared to support a product the vast majority of consumers knew nothing about.

Next was the period of great (retail) stagnation where TiVo and Windows Media Center were largely the only game in town. Although it was also during this second act that cablecos were forced to eat their dog food by utilizing CableCARDs within their own hardware – enabling the rank and file to actually begin learning something of the tech. Further, multistream M-Cards were introduced, to support  multiple simultaneous tuning, along with that awful SDV Tuning Adapter hack – to (partially) overcome a lack of two-way communications. Lastly, we also witnessed the birth and death of tru2way (as far as the retail marketplace is concerned).

And here we sit at the beginning of Act Three. As of 8/1, where acquiring and pairing a CableCARD is easy as pie. So the theory goes. And, in my experience this week, it truly was an efficient and painless process to pick up and successfully activate a new M-Card. I swung by the Verizon store in the mall, for a grand total of only 11 minutes, and registration at home was a mere 5 minute online procedure. No muss, no fuss. Unfortunately, there’s still a lack of consumer knowledge and, more importantly, a lack retail cable devices. Although some solid new offerings are arriving for Windows Media Center and the quad-tuning TiVo Premiere Elite is expected this fall. Yet, that’s really only two new platforms. I’m hopeful the CE manufacturers reevaluate their previous CableCARD abandonment in light of this new-found acquisition and activation ease. Yet that may require the realization of the AllVid home cable hub concept. Something I wouldn’t bank on. Surely no time soon. So this Golden Age of CableCARD may only be appreciated by a select few.

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31 responses to The Golden Age of CableCARD Has Arrived

  1. Of course, the shortage of retail CableCARD devices may be a moot point as Verizon unveils other viewing platforms like Blu-ray players and the Xbox looks to channel live television in 2012. And CableCARD will never be all it can be as long as providers like DirecTV and AT&T U-Verse are permitted to abstain. But those are huge technical and legal cans of worms that won’t be opened this round.

  2. What device are you using the cable card with.

    How does that compare to the FiOS DVR (7232) in terms of features and monthly cost?

  3. I always have a few devices in play. At the moment I’m using a TiVo Premiere (CableCARD), the latest Motorola FiOS DVR that you mention but not yet running 1.9, and a HDHomeRun Prime for review -which is what I just activated.

  4. Is it still true that you can move that cable card between devices and it still works? I heard Verizon is the only MSO that didn’t actually “marry” the card to the device.

    Not sure if that’s true or not.

    But this is great to see a straightforward pickup card and activate it process. This is what Cable Card should of been like when it first came out. Had it been this easy, perhaps we would of seen a greater uptick in retail devices by now.

    Heck DirecTV does it. Buy a receiver online or at a flea market, call DirecTV and get a new access card shipped to you for $20. Put it in and activate it. DONE.

    Cell phone companies do it (at least the GSM standard) with their SIM cards. Need a new sim card? Change to a new phone? Just pop the sim card in.

    WHAT A CONCEPT!!!!

  5. I’ve got a friend who just got his HDHomeRun Prime and he is going through this new “Golden Age” of CC and it’s been a pain for him. He was able to get them just fine, no truck roll out, but the CSR’s and their supervisors don’t know anything about them and claim they don’t need to be activated, just “pinged.”

    Hopefully most people, like FiOS customers, will have good experiences with CC installs.

  6. Kevin, what cable company does he have? Was he given a specific number to call in for CableCARD activation and/or did he call the general line? Did he ever get it going?

  7. We are in Texas and he uses Grande Communications, which provides Copy-Freely marked channels as opposed to Time Warner Cable.

    He was given a general number to call, not sure if they have a CC activation line. I told him to start asking for higher tiered support or supervisors but I think it was taking too much time, he was getting the run-around, and he lost his patience.

    He will get mad when I tell him about your easy and quick web activation method. Lucky you!

  8. Dave has the HDHomeRune Prime (!@#$%*). Is that the three, or six tuner combo?

    I’m hoping that the box can really work over wireless, nicely. Does Dave plan to check out the separate app from ElGato (iPad)?

    I’ve got a Mac Mini just waiting to run Win7 MCE, and hopefully control a 3 tuner prime. Best of luck with it Dave!

  9. I’ve always been a fan of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. I think the nation got a lucky break in Algore’s having had Reed Hundt as a college roommate.

    “Cell phone companies do it (at least the GSM standard) with their SIM cards.”

    Unfortunately, the TCA of ’96 was the last good telco regulatory bill we’ve gotten. The wireless regulatory reform bill never happened.

    It’s ironic.

    The UK has much better wireless regulation than the US, (due to falling under EU regulation).

    But the US has much better multicast regulation than the UK, where nothing like CableCARD exists.

    (I don’t know the state of multicast regulation in the EU ex-UK, but I do know the EU definitely has much better wireless regulation than the US.)

  10. Kevin, ah I see. I’m hoping the larger cablecos have their act together. Not that regional ones should get a pass…

    Mark, it’s the 3 tuner model and I have it MOST especially for that ElGato iPad app. I had two minor Prime setup issues last night – Windows software install wouldn’t finalize until .NET was updated and the PC was rebooted, then I had to track down Silicon Dust’s Microsoft digital tuner activation code. So this is still the province of geeks. Having said that, it was still quick and easy. I’m working with ElGato now on the iPad app. Hope to have something posted next week.

  11. I just had a truck roll yesterday to activate DVRs w/Comcast. Out of curiosity I asked if they were doing customer self-install cable cards and he said “We’re supposed to but they won’t do it yet. None of the CSRs know what to do with them.”

    Thought it was interesting…aren’t they supposed to be doing it by now?

  12. Comcast’s website says they’re currently offering self-installs. (quoted below) But having been a prior customer for many years, your experience doesn’t surprise me. Every employee seemed to have a different answer or script. It wasn’t pleasant. Off hand do you know if your installer was a contractor or employee? Hm. Regardless, hopefully they get it sorted and hopefully folks with problems contact the FCC. Although that can be too much effort, even I have never bothered. Although I did contact my local franchising authority once and that got a quick (positive) response out of Comcast.

    CableCARD ready devices can be purchased at retail stores, but the CableCARD, which is necessary to activate the video service, is provided by Comcast. The CableCARD can be provided as part of a professional installation or self-installation.

  13. “Next was the period of great (retail) stagnation where TiVo and Windows Media Center were largely the only game in town. Although it was also during this second act that cablecos were forced to eat their dog food by utilizing CableCARDs within their own hardware – enabling the rank and file to actually begin learning something of the tech.”

    That’s where I got into the game.

    And that general time period, with the HD rollout in full swing and the decline in price of platter drives, is pretty much where I date the start the Golden Age of CableCARD, even though it was only a fringe taste at the time.

    Happily, I do think we’ve still got a few years left in the Golden Age of CableCARD, even though it’ll probably never be anything but a minority taste.

    (Along similar lines, I date the start of the Golden Age of OS X to early 2002 when Jaguar was released, even though it was only a fringe taste at the time. Sadly, I date the end of the Golden Age of OS X to late 2010 when Dear Departed Leader gave his “Back to the Mac” keynote.)

  14. Dave, I’m VERY late to the Media Center party having recently upgraded a machine to Win7.

    Besides, my two xboxes, are there any Media Center extenders that work with Win7? If not, do any streaming devices support the Media Center recorded tv file types?

  15. “hopefully folks with problems contact the FCC. Although that can be too much effort, even I have never bothered. Although I did contact my local franchising authority once and that got a quick (positive) response out of Comcast.”

    Agreed in full. The FCC has loudly said it wants consumer complaints to help it make CableCARD work, and contacting a local franchising authority if things aren’t working is generally useful in most localities.

  16. PaladinTom, Yeah the 360 is the only active/current Windows Media Center extender in production. However, some of the older ones are mostly functional. I previously wrote about this sad state of affairs and unfortunately, the situation hasn’t improved. I’d see if you can find a Linksys cheap – they’re relatively small and entirely silent. But it may be easier and possibly even cheaper to pick up a noisy and hot Xbox. Or maybe a nettop. But what we really need are $75 Roku-sized boxes to handle this.

  17. Yeah Microsoft really dropped the ball on that.

    Right now I’m using pyTivo to stream media to my televsions but I’m planning on slowly moving away from the TiVo platform.

    The gold standard would be to have a true media server that can easily send (any and all) content to any screen in the house.

  18. “I’ve got a Mac Mini just waiting to run Win7 MCE, and hopefully control a 3 tuner prime.”

    As a happy Mac Mini HTPC user, I have given thought to such a setup. However…

    From the very limited research I’ve done, given the fact that Apple’s Boot Camp drivers along with Windows don’t talk to Apple’s GPU’s with native drivers, I wonder if performance will be adequate in 1080 playback under WMC in a Mini. At a bare minimum, do your due diligence in google research before embarking.

    And once you start getting into Windows license costs, as a happy Mac Mini user, I would consider picking up a cheap small dedicated Windows box – something like the Dell Zinio or whatever – if I wanted to run WMC as a DVR. It could sit right under the Mac Mini if you’ve got a spare HDMI input on your flat panel.

  19. @ Chucky,

    Two reasons I’m doing this. Size/noise. 1080 playback isn’t much of a concern, I still have a 46″ 720p Samsung DLP.

    I’m sticking to dual booting. It’ll be Lion and Win7. Because I have free Win7 license laying around. Win7 came from a technology fee which provided Office & Windows to each student (2 licenses of each). God, I just love college tuition and fees….

    I have one HDMI slot left on the Sony receiver. There are some rumors out here that ElGato “could” attempt to get EyeTV running with CC. However, I understand there’s some OS functionality that’s not there. Win7 is the only certified OS to run the CC’s “at the moment” according to their press release on the HDHR Prime iPad 2 app.

    This isn’t my first attempt either. I built an old hackintosh on a Intel 945GNT media center board. Worked fine. But too big and the noise was just…. well. And the Mini is portable, just a power and HDMI cord.

    I’m doing this because the cable box/DVR from Comcast (Motorola) just plain sucks! I’ve flirted going with a smaller shuttle case, or the Dell (from hell). And the Mini is just smaller. I’d rather have the Prime/Mini combo, than the crap box from Comcast…..

  20. I got a chance to take a look at my friends setup and while what I said was true in that the CC isn’t “activated” he is able to receive all the channels he is subscribed to. So he is good to go and the process was probably easy except for the confusion part.

  21. “I’m doing this because the cable box/DVR from Comcast (Motorola) just plain sucks! I’ve flirted going with a smaller shuttle case, or the Dell (from hell). And the Mini is just smaller. I’d rather have the Prime/Mini combo, than the crap box from Comcast…..”

    I’m certainly not questioning your rationale in doing a CableCARD HTPC running WMC. I don’t want my MSO’s DVR, and WMC is indeed the way to go if you’re not doing TiVo since Cupertino will never agree to the CableCARD terms. I’m just noting that I don’t know if the hardware/GPU driver combo of the Boot Camp Windows Mini will be up to the decoding task of running a DVR. (And as I say, I haven’t done the research, so my concerns may well be misplaced, but I do know the Boot Camp graphics drivers are reputed to suck.)

    And I’m just noting that if I ever went in that direction away from TiVo, I’d get a cheap dedicated Windows box and keep my Mac Mini running Snow Leopard on input 2 as a way to get maximum value out of my hardware.

  22. One sad lack I see is support for CableCard devices on Mac products. There are a few CableCard devices that are designed for Windows, but they won’t work on a Mac. My fondest desire is a version of AppleTV with a CableCard slot. It probably won’t happen. But it would be cool, especially if you could add a hard drive to serve as a DVR. I’d love to be a cable cutter and not pay the Time Warner Cable bastards (who block multi-room viewing on TiVo) another dime. But until I can get my local stations and the cable news channels and all the other programming I like in a timely manner and in one place, cutting the cable isn’t an option.

  23. try the same thing in San Francisco, let me know how it goes. googling “cablecard”, “cablecard san francisco” “comcast cablecard san francisco” all yield terrible results. even visiting comcast.com doesn’t make it easy.

    more like “the bronze age is near” IMHO

  24. That’s my point… In theory, no one should have to Google anything. You simply stroll into that Comcast office and ask for a CableCARD. Theoretically, they’d hand it over with a sheet explaining how to call in or go online (in Verizon’s case) for pairing. Of course, having had a number of unpleasant experiences with Comcast over the years, I don’t expect perfection two weeks after this new policy/system is in place. It’ll still remain a niche tech, but the FCC-mandated change is appreciated and with at least one provider is working as it should. (And as it should have been the last many years.)

  25. “That’s my point… In theory, no one should have to Google anything. You simply stroll into that Comcast office and ask for a CableCARD. Theoretically, they’d hand it over with a sheet explaining how to call in or go online (in Verizon’s case) for pairing.”

    That’s indeed the theory.

    In practice, it should all work. And here is the key:

    If there are hitches in actual practice, the FCC is loudly asking for consumer complaints in order to make CableCARD work seamlessly. If there are hitches, and only a few percent of folks having hitches file complaints, the FCC will have all the ammo it needs to eliminate the hitches.

    The FCC has the law, a working majority on the commission, and the loudly stated will to make CableCARD work. If folks experience issues with non-compliant MSO’s, they should take half an hour to give the FCC the further ammo to fully win the war.

    In short, if certain MSO’s are not in compliance, the FCC will actually force them into compliance if folks give them the complaints they are asking for.

    CableCARD is mandated to work as well as an MSO set-top-box, and if that isn’t your experience, file a complaint. It’ll have a real-world impact.

  26. The cable cards are actually free from Comcast in my area (South Florida) when you factor in the self owned equipment credit now from Comcast. Cable card 1 is included in my cable package for free but I also get a $2.50 montly credit now for using Tivo as my box in my package. Cable card 2 for my second room Tivo is $1.25 a month but I also get another $2.50 credit for having my own Tivo so effectively I am now paying nothing for cable cards. This is a HUGE difference from when the first cable card Tivo came out. Not only is Tivo better than the current Comcast dvr but I am actually saving money over time using Tivo with a lifetime subscription. I think whether cablecards (and Tivo) are only worth it depending on what provider you want to use. I guess the equation could change if they add on demand but when that will be is anyone’s guess…you didn’t point out that people will lose on demand with the cable card….yes they did announce it for Cox but that was well over a year ago….Comcast who knows when….will Tivo get on demand on Comcast before or after Comcast launches the 4 turner dvr? it remains to be seen

  27. I never understood why Cablecard install was/is so much harder that with Directv, where I get an access card, insert it into the equipment and then either online or via phone give them the number and instantly the box is active, my service mirrored and all is well with the universe. is it just the cable companies resist making it easy to so they can upcharge you with an installation truck roll?

  28. Just got my HDHR Prime 3 in the mail yesterday, but because of Irene, I decided to hold off making huge changes to the current setup. Of course, then I have to call and deal with the brain dead assholes at Cox NoVA, so I’m looking forward to that come next weekend.

    Are there any gotchas that I need to be on the lookout for from the SiliconDust side?

  29. 1. My Sony with the original one-way cable card has been hanging on the bedroom wall for the past 5 years and I love it. TV just hangs there, no cable box or extra wires to screw with. Of course, Comcast phone support never had/has a clue and 2/3 of on-site techs don’t either. Every time the channels were remapped I’d lose a bunch of channels and, on average, two to three(!) techs would come to the house to fix it. As I recall, in 2009/2010, my house was a truck stop every 4-5 months. Seem to have worked that out, since I haven’t had a visit in about 8 months.

    2. Tru-2-way was never meant to succeed, I believe. Looked like cable threw it out there with great fan-fare just to beat back a competing (simple and workable) technology from the CE industry and hold off the FCC, and it worked. Cable protected its lucrative box rental business (all, apparently, for the low price of a nicely worded press release saying cable boxes would soon be a thing of the past). Panasonic claimed to be selling 4 models of tru-2-way-enabled TVs, but, as best I could tell, they were available at retail for about 20 minutes…I searched Denver retailers and never found one of those TVs. (Did they ever really exist?) Then, SURPRISE, the exec at Panasonic responsible for what appeared to me to be a sham was hired by cable as the high-paid president/ceo at Cablelabs. You tell me…does that smell of conspiracy?

  30. Dave,
    You shouldn’t have to get the digital cable PID. The first step is to run the Digital Cable Advisor in Media Center Extras Gallery (don’t run full screen or you might miss the UAC when it asks to modify your system). When you pass the DCA it removes the BIOS requirement and writes the PID into the registry.
    Then you run the SiliconDust installer which will install NET 4 if you don’t have it. At that point with the SD installer you can install the tuner and cableCARD and from the web interface get all the data you need to pair your card (or on FiOS to authorize it).
    After that you can run Media Center and TV Set-up and it will have the PID in place, will install playready and find your tuners and ask for your cable provider and zip code to give you a guide.

    Then you just go to the guide in Media Center and click on a channel and watch.

  31. Any chance when you review the hd prime you might be doing a comparison between TiVo and media center? I know Ben did one for engadgethd previously but I would be curious to see your take on the two.

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