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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

Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
Richard Shim
5 min read
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

their infancy, cable companies usually send over a technician to install the card to make sure it works with the TV. Some cards need to be customized and programmed by the technician.

Can I receive HDTV programming with CableCard?
Yes. The whole purpose of CableCard is to make it easier and faster for new digital TV owners to get crystal clear HDTV signals. With a card, TVs can automatically receive HD signals from their local network affiliates and a select few cable stations. But to get more cable stations in HD, subscribers will still need to use an HD set-top for now.

Can I use a CableCard on my current TV?
It depends. CableCard works only with newer digital devices outfitted with a CableCard slot. That includes many models of digital TV sets, including most HDTV sets. If you're not sure whether your TV supports CableCard, you can do a simple visual check by looking at the back panel. If it accepts CableCard, you will see a slot in addition to other standard hook-ups.

Does CableCard support Wi-Fi?
Not yet.

Will any CableCard work with any CableCard-ready device?
In theory, yes. In practice, not yet. The Federal Communication Commission has mandated interoperability, but reported problems suggest this is still a work in progress.

Who is responsible for ensuring products work together?
Manufacturers and service providers are ultimately responsible for making sure their products work together. They take their marching orders from the FCC.

Who makes CableCards?
The largest U.S. set-top makers, such as Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta make CableCards. Britain's NDS joined the list in 2003, according to CableLabs, the cable industry's research and development consortium.

Why is the FCC interested in CableCard?
The FCC has been promoting the transition from analog programming to digital programming as it looks to free up the spectrum used by analog television broadcasts. CableCard is supposed to help speed up the transition by making it easier and cheaper for consumers to access digital programming.

Are cable companies interested in supporting CableCard?
Yes and no. Cable companies like the idea of cutting the costs associated with set-top boxes. But the lack of features such as pay-per-view has for now kept them from marketing the concept. As a result, CableCard sales have come in well below expectations to date.

Will CableCard eclipse the set-top box?
CableCard appears to signal the beginning of the end for the basic set-top box. But the change will likely take several years to play out. In the interim, new technologies are coming along that could revive the set-top box, or rather, see it evolve. More complex boxes are already on the way that combine digital-video recording, video-on-demand and media server capabilities such as HP's media "hub." CableCard will likely complement rather than replace these newer devices.