The NCTA hosted a teleconference last Friday aimed at providing corrective context to discussion posted on some technology blogs about CableCards.

One of the targets of this call was what NCTA General Counsel Neal Goldberg called the "perception that there’s a sort of conspiracy in cable to disable one-way television sets, or unidirectional digital cable products (UDCPs)."

The notion has arisen among TiVo users who are also subscribers in cable systems that have deployed switched digital video. As explained in a Cable-Tec Expo paper last year by Time Warner Cable Austin Director of Digital Systems Todd Bowen, "Any channel that is put into SDV is unavailable to CableCard-equipped (unidirectional) TVs and PVRs, such as the TiVo Series 3."

The resultant subscriber experience of loss can be "emotional," Bowen added. (An understatement, we noted at the time, given the psychological profile of the TiVo early adopter demographic.) History lesson What Goldberg did was offer a the following timeline of the of cable’s regulatory slide into a world of unidirectional constraints:

• Telecom Act of 1996, Provision 629 of which mandated the adoption of regulations to ensure commercial availability of navigation devices
• FCC adoption of rules in 1998 to that effect
• Availability in 2000 of point of deployment modules, despite there being no market for devices that used these modules (later known as CableCards)
• Cable’s one-way plug-and-play agreement with the consumer electronics (CE) industry in 2002
• The FCC’s "blessing" of agreement in 2003 and request that the two industries keep working on a two-way agreement
• First UDCP devices certified and marketed in 2004

Since that last bullet, several trends bring us up to date. First, while the CE and cable industries have yet to reach a grand two-way entente, Goldberg noted that three manufacturers (Samsung, Pansonic and LG) representing more than 50 percent of the U.S. market for digital TV sets have implemented individual agreements that incorporate the bidirectional OpenCable (now called tru2way) framework on which CableCards were based.

Second, cable operators have continued to deploy other technologies, such as SDV. "Nothing in these (FCC) rules was meant to impede innovation on the cable plant," Goldberg said. The (at least initial) incompatibility between SDV and UDCPs, in retrospect, was "something that fell through the cracks."

Third, some relief to appeared in November 2007 when CableLabs announced that it had developed "a new solution that extends the functionality of certain UDCPs that use CableCards to access switched digital services previously unavailable to such devices." Goldberg’s understanding was that further testing of this "tuner resolver" device was on schedule.

"It is one of the highest priority, if not the highest priority, items at CableLabs, in large part because of its Washington and political aspects," Goldberg said. CableCard numbers The metrics on UPCPs purchased at retail (10 million) vs. the number of CableCards that MSOs have deployed to date in such devices (378,000) shed further light on one allegation bandied about in the blogosphere.

"I don’t mean to suggest that the 380,000 folks with CableCards on one-way devices aren’t a group that we should be concerned about; I’m just pointing out that the statement that there are 10 million devices that we’re leaving stranded is not accurate," said Goldberg.

The total number of deployed CableCards is 10 times larger, and counting. Following last July’s CableCard requirement for operator-deployed set-top boxes, Goldberg said that MSOs have deployed to date an additional 4 million.

That MSOs have done so largely by bolting the PCMCIA-form factor devices into the set-top boxes has left something of a gap in workforce skills in the field, especially in the TiVo community.

"All 10 CableCards that I’ve had installed, from two different providers, I’ve basically done the installation for them," said Ben Drawbaugh of Engadget, one of the bloggers represented on this call.

"In my case, they’ve all been TiVos," Drawbaugh said.

– Jonathan Tombes Read more news and analysis on Communications Technology‘s Web site at http://www.cable360.net/ct/news/.

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