Our expert in this case is Joanne Bandlow, manager, data support services, business class in Time Warner Cable’s Northeast Ohio Division. She recently discussed CableCards at an SCTE Ohio Valley Chapter technical seminar and generously offered to field a set of frequently asked questions. Here are the FAQs and Bandlow’s answers:

The CableCard fits into the PCMCIA slot on the side of my laptop. Will it work there?

No, for several reasons. The CableCard does not contain a tuner. The signal pins are different; your laptop doesn’t know how to communicate with it. And even if your laptop had a tuner, it does not have the electronics necessary to deliver the data stream or the MPEG video to the card.

Are there different CableCards for SD and HD programs?

No. The card simply handles the crypto and conditional access. It doesn’t care whether the bits are describing an HD or SD picture, so it works just as well on HD and SD programs.

Why can I only receive one-way (broadcast-mode) services with a CableCard?

Primarily because the host TV set doesn’t have a return-path transmitter in it. It’s the job of the host TV set to handle all of the RF processing, both downstream and upstream; therefore, a TV set has to be equipped with a return-path transmitter as well as the video and data tuners.

There are two-way sets coming onto the market within the next six months. There’s also a new two-way multistream “M” CableCard coming out, which is intended for use with these new two-way sets. The M card will be able to decode multiple streams simultaneously for picture-in-picture, etc.

A word of caution on the new two-way CableCard TV sets: Since these sets will contain a return-path transmitter, they will be generating upstream traffic (and noise) just like everything else that operates in the return spectrum (5-42 MHz).

Can I move my CableCard from set to set depending on where I want to watch TV?

Not easily. Once a CableCard is installed in a set, it is married to that set, and the two act as a single addressable device. Moving a card involves having the cable company de-provisioning it from one TV set and installing it into another TV set. This is a security measure to prevent someone from ordering, say, a boxing match on his digital cable-ready (DCR) set and then taking his CableCard down to the local bar to allow everyone to see the fight.

My CableCard won’t authorize. What could be wrong?

Some of the more common possibilities:
• Outdated firmware on TV set. This is a very common issue. Verify with the TV set manufacturer which version of firmware is needed in the set.
• Insufficient RF level or ingress on data carriers. (Is there a broadcaster operating on the same frequency as the in-band data QAM?)
• Traps causing difficulty with the OOB (out-of-band) forward data carrier and/or the in-band QAM data carrier.  The card needs both of these!
• Incorrect media access control (MAC) addresses in the billing system. (Have CSR remove and restore on outlet.)

How does a customer upgrade the firmware on their set?

It depends upon the manufacturer’s style of doing things. Some manufacturers will mail an SD card to the customer, and the card is placed into the appropriate slot, the set is rebooted, and the set runs an upgrade script from the card. At least one manufacturer allows users to download firmware upgrades over the Internet, where the firmware is then transferred to a USB flash drive and inserted into the set. Other manufacturers provide a special port on the back of the set, which can only be access by a factory representative with a laptop and a special cable.

The customer’s TOSLINK (optical fiber) digital audio output from his DCR set stopped working after the CableCard was installed. One of the TV set manufacturers (rhymes with SanaPhonic) had misinterpreted the rules regarding TOSLINK digital audio on a channel where the CCI flag was set to disallow copying. A factory-supplied firmware upgrade corrected this.

I’ve heard that Microsoft is coming out with a CableCard-ready PC. Is this true?

Maybe. Microsoft has announced that it will design a media center PC, which will have a CableCard slot in it. This will be a special set of hardware and firmware that will employ a concept called “Protected Path,” where the entire video path from F-connector through the motherboard to the video output will support encryption. This encrypted path is necessary to protect against illegal copying/duplication of movies and other high-value content. Of course, this will preclude users from building their own CableCard-ready PCs.

Does TiVo pose any problems?

The only quirk we’ve found so far with TiVo Series 3 is that the unit prompts the user to insert both CableCards, but the printed setup instructions which accompany the unit state (correctly) that only the first card (bottom slot) should be inserted first, then the normal installation procedure is followed; then the second card in inserted and the process is repeated. 

What about DCAS?

Downloadable Conditional Access System is the next generation of CableCard-style security. A DCAS set or DVR has all of the CableCard electronics built-in, meaning that it’s sold as an addressable TV set right off the shelf. It is network-agnostic, meaning that it won’t care whether it’s attached to a Scientific-Atlanta or Motorola system. The appropriate applications and interface modules for the cable company that it’s connected to are delivered to it by the headend, automatically giving it the appropriate personality for that system. As far as installation, the MAC address of the customer’s set is attached to an account, and it’s sent a hit, pushing all of the appropriate firmware out to the device. It acts just like an addressable set-top box as far as the cable company is concerned—no CableCards or other outboard gizmos necessary. A DCAS set will still require OOB and INB carriers from the headend in order to operate, so your traditional troubleshooting skills will not become obsolete.

Joanne Bandlow can be reached at joanne.bandlow@twcable.com. The views expressed in the article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Time Warner Cable.

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