CableCARD Trials and Tribulations

February 10, 2012

While in the works for some time, the FCC’s proposed change to encrypt all cable service is getting some attention again. Boxee recently posted a strongly worded note asserting that the encryption rule is anti-consumer. Given all this, I thought it was appropriate to share a cautionary tale about the CableCARD standard and how it’s implemented.

Rewind to this past holiday season. My father-in-law (FIL) was looking for a solution to watch Netflix and record programs on the living room HDTV. Given the planned upgrades for TiVo including a new Netflix interface and the UI improvements (now delivered), I recommended a TiVo Premiere to him. He already had a Series1 TiVo in another room and was happy with the endless hours of Law & Order that it recorded.

After ordering, his TiVo quickly arrived and he had Netflix up and running in no time. For the TiVo Premiere to tune and record cable broadcasts, it needs a CableCARD. CableCARDs allow the TiVo (and other devices) to receive and decrypt a digital transmission from the cable company. Here’s what FIL went through to get his CableCARD installed:

  • Initially, FIL called Comcast and was told they would have to come out and install the CableCARD (and charge for it).
  • Comcast never showed up on the Saturday and had no record of the appointment (Normally there’s a $25 refund but he didn’t get it).
  • FIL went to the Comcast service center, waited in a long line, handed in his cable box and was given a CableCARD.
  • When FIL got home, he realized they gave him the wrong type of CableCARD for a TiVo Premiere (an S-Card instead of an M-Card)
  • Back to the service center, Comcast tells FIL they don’t have any M-Cards. He will have to make an appointment for a technician to come out in a week. (Oh by the way, now he can’t watch cable in the living room)
  • Disgusted by this story, I started relaying it on Twitter
  • Comcast quickly responded to my tweets and scheduled a technician to come out the next day (Hurray!)
  • The TiVo Premiere was then up and running the next day.
  • Later that da, FIL realizes that the cable box connected to the upstairs Series1 TiVo no longer works  (it apparently became “unauthorized”).
  • FIL remembers that his no cost DTA also works with his Series1 TiVo (I still don’t know how a cable box took its place). He can now return another cable box and save on his monthly bill.
  • FIL is now enjoying both TiVos
It’s a miracle that FIL didn’t return the TiVo at some point during this process. In spite of the new FCC rules around CableCARD, it can still be an unpleasant experience for the consumer. To be fair, some customers have had better experiences with Comcast and some cable companies do a decent job supporting CableCARDs and TiVos.

However, even with good customer service, CableCARD installations are still too complex. For self-installs, you typically need to talk to someone at the cable company to get it activated. If your TiVo is upgraded or dies and you need to move the CableCARD, another call is required (FIOS being a notable exception here and in my experience has provided good CableCARD and TiVo support). Contrast this with streaming video providers such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video who simply require you to enter your userid and password or a on-screen code from their website. I wonder if such a system is possible with today’s CableCARD standard?

Now, think about the proposal to encrypt all cable transmissions and the requirement to have a cable box or CableCARD attached to every TV. You will no longer have the option to directly plug a TV directly into cable. The proliferation of cable boxes and CableCARDs is further entrenching outdated technology. As I’ve previously stated, one of the unintended consequences is that customers may simply turn to Over the Top video (OTT) solutions. For example, the bedroom TV may get a Roku connected to it instead or people will use tablets to watch programs.

In closing, there’s something to be said for simplicity. Ultimately, I just want a to plug an ethernet cable into the back of my TiVo to receive all of my programming via the Internet. It’s the simple approach streaming video services have taken. For cable programming, one way to do it is with a standard called AllVid but it’s had a shaky start. If cable companies can’t get behind a standard like AllVid, customers will keep looking for ways to “cut the cord”.

Tags: Boxee, CableCARD, comcast, FIOS, Premiere, TiVo

2 Responses to CableCARD Trials and Tribulations

  1. [...] rental fee.  In addition customers have had a lot of bad experiences with CableCard installs (here is one, and here’s a former installers comments), meanwhile the cable companies are all moving [...]

  2. Fanfoot on February 16, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Yup. Sounds far too typical. I *dread* getting a new TiVo. Comcast always screws it up.

    My recent TiVo Elite install in northern California was similar. Let’s try a self install since they’re mandated by the FCC now. Go to Comcast. Get an M-Card. Take it home. Doesn’t work, TiVo won’t even acquire channel list. Take it back, new card. Better. Call Comcast to pair, doesn’t work. They can’t fix. Don’t seem to know what is wrong. Schedule a home visit. Guy comes out, has only S-Cards (I don’t think they even make these any more, and the FCC edit REQUIRES them to install the right kind). Heads out, a couple of hours go by. Comes back. On the phone with the Cable Card smarties they figure it out quickly for him, but when he explains that to the person that actually has to fix it, they don’t understand what he’s talking about. Another Card swap to avoid dealing with that. Finally works.

    Hours of lost work. Lots and lots of time lost on phone with Comcast, on chats with Comcast, waiting for TiVo to reboot since they always want you to do that. No cable for like two weeks. Crazy.

    Working like a charm now. Loving the new Elite interface actually, but wouldn’t repeat the experience if you paid me.

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