Ready for CableCards?
October 1, 2009 10:14 AM   Subscribe

What is the current state of CableCards? Is it worth adding to my HTPC?

I came across this article on Gizmodo regarding CableCards. I've only done cursory reading on the tech as it always seemed to be not well supported (or promoted) or mature enough yet. Is this still the case, or is it time to start looking into it? Anyone have any experience with CableCards or a primer for us newbs that they'd like to share?
posted by medarby to Technology (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
CableCard works fine in my TivoHD, on a comcast cable sytem. The only annoyance is that it will rebuild the whole channel list automatically whenever they add a new sub-channel, so all the garbage channels I'll never watch, that I removed from Tivo's channel display, come back. On the other hand, it's a rare occurrence. Had no problems getting the card from Comcast, and no problems getting it to work.
posted by nomisxid at 10:29 AM on October 1, 2009

One complication is that the cable providers tend to require a "truck roll" (installer home visit) to setup a CableCard, which is pretty annoying since you have to pay $40 or so for that, even if the CableCard is free. OTOH, I have heard of some Comcast affiliates letting you pick up the cards at the office and installing it yourself. YMMV.

Also that probably 99% of CableCards are installed in Tivos, and even that is relatively rare, so the installer likely will have no idea how to deal with a HTPC.
posted by smackfu at 10:49 AM on October 1, 2009

I just started with Verizon FiOS, and had them bring a CableCard to install in my TiVo. The install tech told me that he does about one CableCard install a year, always on a TiVo.

For an HTPC, you have to make sure that your TV card can handle it. Calling the manufacturer is a good start. I'm pretty sure that some of them have an obvious slot for it. It looks like a PCMCIA slot (because it is one).

Once the card is enabled by the company office, it will get channels and decode the upper-range and digital stuff. If you have a compatible TV card, and you're running something typical like Windows Media Center, you should be able to use it just like a cable box.

The only problem I see is that I'm not sure where you're going to get a program guide. I'm sure that someone's solved that problem, I just don't know the details.
posted by Citrus at 11:03 AM on October 1, 2009

When you have them out to do the install, make sure you ask for a tech who is familiar with cable cards. You would think that would happen, but it took me three tries with Comcast. The first guy had no idea how to insert them into the Tivo. When I called in for tier 1 support, the responses I received ranged from "there is no such thing as a Tivo that takes CCs" to "your tv is outdated and needs to be replaced." I am pretty sure my year old Samsung is good to go.

Now that I am over the initial hurdle, I am satisfied. Just remember, they don't currently support any On Demand content with CCs. Also, if you want one of the sports packages like NHL Center Ice you need to use their cable box, according to the last Comcast person I spoke with anyway.
posted by Silvertree at 11:06 AM on October 1, 2009

Best answer: (I work in a cable lab, but not THE Cable Labs)

This info is for both SA/Cisco and Motorola. I have no idea what's currently field deployed, so this info may be a bit ahead of the curve. Also, what's deployed varies drastically by market, so while you may be with Time Warner, you may not have the same features available as someone with Time Warner in another region.

Also, the "this package is not available to CC customers" is bunk in theory. I can't think of a reason why this would be the case.

There's nothing technical about the lack of VOD with cable cards as long as it's a two-way card, and I'm pretty sure they're distributing those now. I keep seeing the terms "single stream" and "multistream," but that's marketing weirdness. Anyway, all of the next-gen cable boxes, some of which are starting to be field-deployed, are CC based.

I'm not really sure why they're not in heavier use. It might have something to do with non-STB devices being up to par. For example, a TV with a CC slot, which is (hopefully) an OCAP device, might not have the required infrastructure in place to make it actually work with a real guide quite yet. If it's _NOT_ an OCAP device... Your guide will suck, you might not have VOD, and things will be pretty featureless indefinitely.

In response to Citrus's comment, the guide comes down the same way for CC's as it does for everything else, but if your software/hardware that interfaces with the card won't pull it, yeah, you may have problems there.

So, primer... Cable Cards are just the decryption module. Everything else is up to the host, and your feature set is entirely, 100% based on what the host will support. So, if your area supports VOD with CC's and your host does not, don't go calling customer support and bitching. Other than the few extra steps involved with passing data around, they work exactly like normal cable boxes.

Here's how they work, and this info is, once again, controller agnostic, and the communication protocol (qpsk/oob or dsg) doesn't change anything.

The host has an RF* tuner. All frequencies/channels/etc are on the wire, all the time, no exceptions. At set intervals, the controller sends out the following info

1. Channel map info
2. Authorization info, ie: what channels you can see, if you can order VOD, etc
3. System time

So, more or less, the controller talks to the host, which bounces info to the cable card.

The main difference between CC's and integrated STB's is this: You can pull the encryption module out, put it in something else, and it'll work.** You can also, in theory (and in practice
on some devices) put in a CC from another controller type, like Cisco to Moto, and it'll pick up.

So.. Guide data. If it's a legacy box (not DSG) it comes down the same channel as the channel map, auth info, etc. DSG, however, is a whole new beast. Lots of multicast, and each data type has it's own tunnel/channel/insert one of the industry standard terms here.

Either way, if your host can receive that info and deal with it properly, it will. If not, again, blame the host.

If you have other questions, I'll do my best to answer them, but I don't really want to threadjack, so I'll leave that up to you.

* eh.. inband and out of band, but that's sort of irrelevant from a high level.
** There's another step here, which involves pairing the host with the card
posted by onedarkride at 12:11 PM on October 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have 2 CableCards in a Tivo S3 on Time-Warner Cable in Manhattan, which used to be pretty hinky but has been rock-stable for the past couple of years.
posted by nicwolff at 12:39 PM on October 1, 2009

I've got a multi-stream card in a TivoHD and I have no problems whatsoever (that I could reasonably attribute to the card itself ...).
posted by galaksit at 3:06 PM on October 1, 2009

Not to sidetrack - but I'm interested in this as well for my HPTC.
I'm having a heck of a time finding out who makes a cablecard friendly pci card that I can buy and put into my home-built box and expect to work with Windows Vista Media Center - most of the time I seem to find information advising that I need to buy a media PC from a vendor who has included cablecard compatibility.
posted by terpia at 3:37 PM on October 1, 2009

You may need to wait a while for HTPC cable card access products to appear on the market. Microsoft and the Cable companies have only just agreed a relaxation of DRM rules that will allow this to happen.
posted by Susurration at 6:19 PM on October 1, 2009

Just a clarification, I called back into Comcast and you can get NHL Center Ice through CC. You didn't specifically mention that was important, but I thought I would bring it up anyway. If anything, it illustrates the point that finding accurate information about CCs from a cable company isn't always easy.
posted by Silvertree at 11:30 AM on October 7, 2009

For what it's worth, a guide on installing a cablecard reader in a homebuilt HTPC just surfaced - here it is.
posted by terpia at 2:14 PM on October 7, 2009

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