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Ciciora’s Corner - Rants

Mon, 05/31/2010 - 8:25pm
Walt S. Ciciora Expert on cable and consumer electronics issues

I went looking for a retail digital cable set-top with a CableCard slot. I’m still looking.

Walt CicioraWell, the day has finally come. The cable system I am on is going all-digital, and so I have to have a cable settop box. To ease the pain, the cable company is offering two set-tops at no charge for two years. Fine. But I have eight TVs and a number of VCRs and video monitors. A logical solution is to get the digital equivalent of the “plain-Jane” analog converter. This would give me basic access on the other TVs, and I’d have access to channels that are “scrambled” (encrypted) in the digital format and on video-on-demand on the two set-top boxes from the cable company. One of the boxes is a DVR, similar to my beloved TiVo.

Both set-top boxes supplied by the cable company have a CableCard, a requirement imposed by the Federal Communications Commission at the behest of the consumer electronics industry to “level the playing field.”

The consumer electronics industry wanted to sell set-top boxes directly to consumers, and the encryption of some of the digital channels was claimed to be an impediment to sales. The CableCard would be the answer to that problem. It would allow decryption of encrypted channels by a purchased set-top box while retaining the security of the signal. The CableCard would still be leased by the cable company, but the box itself could be purchased from the retailer. The same set-top box design would work in any cable system. This combination would allow access to most cable channels, even if it didn’t include two-way communications, and therefore was still lacking some functionality.

The need for a socket and interface electronics for the CableCard added expense to the retail set-top box that the cable operators’ existing set-top didn’t have. This was claimed to make the sale of cable set-top boxes by consumer electronics retailers uncompetitive.

There is a little logical inconsistency here. The consumer electronics industry claimed that its huge production capabilities would make the set-top boxes less expensive, and that it would benefit consumers. But still, competing against a box that did not require the CableCard socket and interface was too big of a burden. Allowing the consumer electronics industry to sell digital set-tops was also claimed to open the market to innovation and invention.

The solution to this “unfairness” was to hobble the leased cable set-top box and require it to also have the additional expense of the CableCard socket and interface. This is an unnecessary expense since the set-tops owned by the cable operator can be upgraded without forcing expense on the consumer. This is a strange method of creating “equality.” The lower-cost solution is forced to take on an unnecessary expense to equalize the costs between the two approaches. Of course, it’s the consumer who has to pay for this. The consumer subsidizes the desire of some to be competitive by paying more for either solution. Strange idea.

Keeping all of this in mind, I first checked the lease price for a CableCard. It was considerably less than the lease price of a set-top box and quite reasonable. So I went looking for a retail digital cable set-top with a CableCard slot. I’m still looking. I first tried Radio Shack, then Best Buy, then Sears. No luck. There are still digital set-top boxes on sale for receiving broadcast digital signals, but without the rebate previously offered. But I could find no digital set-tops for use on cable.

Television receivers and some TiVo boxes have sockets for CableCards so they can access encrypted programming. But these devices are so much more expensive than a digital cable set-top that the additional cost of the CableCard socket and interface is much less significant. And the cable operator is not selling or leasing television receivers. So there is no competition there.

It would seem time to end this burdensome rule and additional expense, which ultimately gets paid by the subscriber. This is especially irksome since it appears that the major retailers are not selling digital set-top boxes, with or without CableCard sockets.

The technician that came to my home to install the new set-tops was very impressive. His shirt said that he was a contractor to the cable company. I assume that conversion to all-digital is requiring a lot of additional work.

He knew what he was doing and happily explained it all. He had to go through three DVR boxes to find one that worked properly, but he did it patiently. The normal set-top installed without a glitch. In addition, he was scheduled to be at my home in a two-hour window. He made it toward the end of the time slot, but he called to advise me when he was 10 to 15 minutes from my home. He also called his next appointment, advising him he might be delayed.

wciciora@ieee.org

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