Legendary home theater blogger Dave Zatz unearthed an FCC filing over the weekend. In it, the FCC says they plan on coming up with… something. It’s not super clear. What is clear is that they acknowledge that CableCARD technology is dead, and their plans to promote it didn’t work.
Let’s back up a little bit
Think back about 15 years. There was no streaming. Antenna TV was still analog, and took a large antenna in most areas. Cable TV and satellite were the name of the game. But, cable TV was lagging behind satellite and more importantly, lagging behind customer expectations. If your local cable company even offered a DVR back then it likely had about 10 hours of recording capacity and worked with some janky software that lacked basic functions.
On the other hand, companies like ReplayTV and TiVo had great DVRs and great experiences, but didn’t work with digital cable systems. So, the FCC worked with cable companies to develop a standard that could work. This same standard would also allow TV makers to build digital cable into their TVs so that you could watch TV without a separate box. This was important because box rentals were high and people depended on TV.
So, CableCARD was born. A CableCARD looked like a thick silver credit card that functioned much the same way a satellite access card does today. It was designed to add functionality to TVs and DVRs to let them work with modern cable systems.
The only problem…
…it didn’t work. Cable companies charged about the same for a standalone CableCard as they charged for a whole cable box. DVRs got better. People started to stream. And so, fewer and fewer people really cared whether they had one or not. Dedicated TiVo users still used them, as did users of some video streaming devices. But for the most part the technology was dead on arrival.
But none of this is new.
I wrote in 2016 that the FCC wanted to move forward with new interoperability standards that didn’t include CableCARD. Even then this was obsolete technology. The new FCC filing references the 2016 effort, sort of. If you read between the lines, they say “well, we sorta wanted to do this four years ago and we didn’t. So, let’s move forward.” A solution that makes sense today would probably be different from what we considered in years past anyway, so it’s good that they’re taking this step.
What would be a best-case scenario here?
I think the best case scenario would be to move forward using technology compatible with ATSC 3.0, the new standard for over-the-air television signals. This standard will require a lot more computing power in the television, as well as “conditional access” technology which will let you unlock channels the way you do on cable or satellite. If this new system were based on ATSC 3.0 or something similar, it could make it easier for consumers. Because ATSC 3.0 TVs will be expected to be internet connected, all the authentication could take place that way if they wanted. At the very least, any new system should use the same programming languages and standards that ATSC 3.0 does.
Does this really affect satellite TV?
At the moment, no. Satellite TV services are handled differently from over-the-air or cable TV. The FCC could, if they really wanted to, mandate one standard that applied to cable, over-the-air (ATSC 3.0) and satellite. The technologies are getting more and more similar and there could absolutely be “one ring to rule them all.” Honestly, that would put the US in the same place that European broadcasters have been in for years.
But it’s not likely to happen. The big companies would say that changing over to this new system would be too expensive. They’d point out that margins are thin and competition is great, so it’s not likely to happen. But really that’s ok since these systems work as designed. For now, the only negative impact are those outliers still in the TiVo ecosystem.