Is CableCard dead? FCC weighs alternatives.

In theory, CableCards don't seem like a bad idea: Instead of using a set-top box provided by your cable company, you can slide a small card into a device like a PC or TiVo and use that to control your programming options. The first cards were hobbled by their inability to communicate in both directions—able to transmit to the device but not to send signals back from it—which made features like on-demand viewing unavailable.

In theory, CableCards don't seem like a bad idea: Instead of using a set-top box provided by your cable company, you can slide a small card into a device like a PC or TiVo and use that to control your programming options. The first cards were hobbled by their inability to communicate in both directions—able to transmit to the device but not to send signals back from it—which made features like on-demand viewing unavailable. Version 2 cleared that technical hurdle, but CableCard's other major problem is that cable companies make it very difficult to obtain and set up a card for their programming (for obvious reasons).

Now, according to Ars Technica, the FCC is ready to bury the whole framework and is looking for an alternative to cable companies controlling all means to access their streams. The question is: What truly is a viable alternative? Cable companies (and probably phone operators turned TV providers like AT&T and Verizon) would need to open up enough to make a new solution easy enough for device makers and subscribers to obtain and use that it won't be dismissed as an option by 99 percent of consumers. It would need not only to provide all of the services cable companies currently offer through their set-top boxes, but also to interact with other communication streams (like e-mail or Twitter posts), which tru2way—the technology used for two-way communications for the latest CableCards—can't handle at the moment.

Cable providers may have succeeded in scuttling CableCard's viability, but it now may be in their best interests to be slightly less defensive. That's because an alternative is starting to form, even if it's a hodgepodge of approaches at the moment. Of course, I'm referring to the Internet, where surfers can already watch TV on Hulu and network Web sites and view streaming video like live baseball games on devices from Roku or even on Blu-ray players with Ethernet or wireless connections. While this patchwork won't satisfy TV addicts or people who can't miss the local news, there is a subset of viewers considering junking their cable subscriptions and just watching everything online. It's enough of a threat that cable companies are already setting up streaming services for subscribers to watch online instead of on their TVs.

The continuing development of online viewing options may be enough of a threat that the FCC can cajole the cable companies into softening their tactics against new technologies to replace CableCard. Otherwise, some subscribers may return their set-top boxes and never look back.

Show Comments