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Article: A CableCARD Rant

by on August 24, 2010

I own a TiVo HD and recently moved. In order to receive digital cable channels on it, you must use a CableCARD, which is essentially the decoding components of a digital cable box on a PC Card (just like a ’90s laptop). You probably have never heard of this device, it seems like the cable industry wants to keep it that way.

A Bit of History and Speculation

If you’ve ever had to deal with a CableCARD installation, it is obvious that most cable companies hate these little devices, but were forced to support them thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The idea is much like a SIM card in some cell phones. A company-provided card slides into a universal device, giving it your subscriber information and access to a network. No longer are customers forced to use buggy or expensive cable boxes. All sorts of devices support this technology, such as TVs, computer TV tuners, and DVRs. Sounds great, right?

Wrong. Rather than making the process simple and fully supported, it seems like everyone wants this technology to die. Most cable providers would rather you get their box, pay for a fancier box for HD or DVR, and buy things through services like pay-per-view or video on-demand. Because of this, CableCARDs are often a “special request”, must be paired to the device they’re in, and often do not work because they’re not properly set up in the billing system. Imagine, if you were an AT&T or T-Mobile customer and you had to jump through hoops to use a phone other than the ones available from those companies and that your SIM card wouldn’t work in any other phone. You can see the frustrations, no?

Why not just play along, pay the $5-$15/month for a Motorola or Scientific Atlanta/Cisco cable box and be happy with what you have? Just like the appeal of unlocked cellular phones, service-agnostic devices, such as a TiVo offers more flexibility, less tie-ins with the cable company, and the ability to use the same hardware with a different service. The other benefit is that you outright own the unit. Obviously, TiVo has its own monthly fee and other associated costs, but you’re not paying the cable company their DVR fee or box rental. Additionally, you can do things like transfer shows to and from your computer, burn shows to DVD, use online services such as Netflix or Amazon, and even add more storage space.

A Story

Getting back to the original point of this article, I recently moved from one area serviced by a large, purchase-happy cable company, to another area in the same state serviced by the same company. I previously was using a CableCARD to receive digital channels and HD (I was working on a college campus, where the basic analog cable was provided, and if you had a decoder/box, you could receive more without any additional costs). For the initial installation, the company insisted that they send someone out to install the card in my TiVo—it was simply flipping down the front panel, sliding the card in, and calling in 3 sets of numbers. I could’ve done it myself, especially since, had they not been late, I would’ve been charged $20.

I can’t complain—I was getting digital cable for free and got out of a box rental because I had my TiVo (usually the first CableCARD is free). Upon moving, I turned in the card to the office and thought the install/setup process would be similar, especially since it would be a similar arrangement.

I drove to the local office to pick up a card and create a new account. Upon arriving, I was instructed that the warehouse (read: garage) was only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I would have to come back. They would be happy to give me one of the many Motorola HD boxes that were stacked in the back corner of the office…for a fee. I wasn’t going to fight it and returned again on Tuesday to set up my account. I was handed a card, which made me happy (since I knew I could do the installation myself). After calling customer service and reading off the sets of numbers (one for the card’s ID, one for the TiVo’s ID, and the Data ID), I thought I’d be done. I was able to receive some additional digital-only channels, but only unencrypted locals in HD. After a few calls, I was instructed that the card may be faulty, so I exchanged it.

The second card’s process was the same and the result was, too. I called customer service again and again and was bounced between the offices that dealt with bulk accounts, business customers, and residential customers, since many reps had selective listening (I had an individual account number). One didn’t even know what a CableCARD was, while another told me I’d need their DVR hooked up to my TiVo and that a CableCARD was the wrong option. I even called TiVo to see if there was some magic department or person to talk to and they set up a three-way call with the cable company. Finally, I reached someone who was willing to listen, help, and try to send a few “hits” to the card. Unfortunately those didn’t work, so she offered to send out a technician for free. How could I say no?

The local technician arrived, saw what was going on, called some secret number and had a “hit” sent to the card and all of a sudden, everything was working.

On Purpose?

Part of me is entirely frustrated with the process, but the other part of me understands that this is not the most common setup. This is not a new technology by any means, and in theory, is awesome. The current model works well for the cable companies to make extra money and make it seem “easy”, but kills innovation. What is the motivation for companies like TiVo, Moxie, or even Motorola to make more innovative devices when most customers will get something that works, but is often buggy, but the only game in town? Imagine if everyone who used AT&T could only use a 2006-era Palm Treo and that was it. Something like the iPhone would seem science fiction.

Part of the frustration comes from how unnecessarily complicated the process is. In theory, CableCARDs should not have to be paired with the host device, just the service and an account, much like a SIM card. Ironically, Verizon does not require the device pairing with FIOS, but most other companies do. They also shouldn’t require a technician visit to install.

I know that there’s always other options, and if I lived somewhere that allowed it, I could pick another provider (and lose my TiVo), but I think it is a really disappointing model that needs to die soon. Remember when you could only get a phone leased from the local phone company? Once the network was opened up, phones came in all sorts of shapes and sizes and added a number of features. Could you imagine something like an Apple TV/TiVo/cable box all in one package? I’m sure Motorola, TiVo, or Sony would love to sell you one…if your cable company would allow it.

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