FAQ: CableCard? What's that?

The FCC wants to terminate your cable set-top box. Here's what you need to know. Photos: Free your set-top box

The government has a plan to help speed the arrival of digital TV and let you dump your cable box. It's called CableCard, and it's poised to come out from the wings, if not take center stage, in the cable TV market this year.

Momentum for the technology has been building almost imperceptibly since late 2003, when the Federal Communications Commission first ordered cable companies to support it. Now CableCard is gaining visibility, thanks to new devices promising to give consumers more control over their TVs while keeping everything simple enough for average folks to use.

If you're shopping for a new TV or personal video recorder (PVR) this year, you should know something about CableCard. At this month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, TiVo, Hewlett-Packard and others unveiled new products incorporating the technology. Most new digital television models including HDTVs now include CableCard hook-ups.


What's new:
CableCard is a new technology for digital television that lets users connect to cable TV without a set-top box.

Bottom line:
It will simplify your entertainment system and possibly save you money. But if CableCard signals the beginning of the end for the basic set-top box, the switch will probably take several years to play out.

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So what is CableCard? And why haven't we heard much about it until now? The following CNET News.com FAQ explains the ins and outs, the pros and cons and the whys and wherefores.

What is it?
CableCard is an interface for digital TV that lets you plug your cable line directly into your TV set without the need for a set-top box. It's about the size of a thick credit card, and fits into a special slot built into digital TVs and a growing number of peripheral devices, such as a newly announced version of TiVo and HP's media "hub."

What does it do?
CableCard's first function--and arguably its most important--is to prevent people from stealing cable TV. Like a set-top box, it stores subscriber information and codes for unlocking and viewing scrambled digital-cable signals.

CableCard is meant to replace set-top boxes. But it does not yet replicate all set-top box functions. Notably, you can't yet use CableCard for services that require two-way interactivity, such as accessing your cable company's interactive programming guide or purchasing pay-per-view programs. Also, equipment that was made before the CableCard specification was created won't work with CableCard. That includes all current TiVo models.

Why should I get one?
The main reasons for now are cost and convenience. It's cheaper for cable companies to produce and distribute CableCards than set-top boxes, and consumers are expected to pocket at least some of the savings. It also simplifies your entertainment system, removing one component from your entertainment unit and one remote control from under the cushions of your couch.

CableCard is expected to let you choose from a variety of digital-TV services and devices, rather than those dictated by your cable provider. Updated specifications are also in the works that will enable interactive features, although it is unclear when they will be available.

How can I get one and how much will it cost?
You can only rent one for about $2 a month from your cable provider. That compares to about $7 a month currently for a set-top box.

Can I install it myself?
Ideally, the cable company sends over a card, you plug it in to your TV and voila! But that day is still a way off. Since CableCards are still in

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