The image to the left is a Motorola CableCard. Its thicker and about the size of a credit card.

CableCard is a United States CableTV content access and copy protection device. Similar devices exist in Europe. Its designed to translate the highly proprietary television signals being transmitted by your Cable Company (MSO), into one agreed national standard. That’s a good thing. It creates one electrical interface and a fixed set of control protocols. Companies other than your MSO can therefore develop new consumer devices that interoperate with CableCard, offering consumers more choice and higher flexibility.

Why should we care (background)?

For the last 15 years, the general consensus in the United States was that MSOs rented set-top-boxes to consumers, who rarely if ever had any kind of choice. The quality and usability of these boxes was poor at best and offered nothing in the way of choice or features. The MSOs (by the opinions of many) were not doing enough, little or no innovation was taking place while consumer cable bills were gradually getting higher and higher. The vast majority of technically minded people thought the MSOs did ‘just enough to get by’. To make matters worse, due to the geographic size of the US as well as the cost related to rolling coax to homes, rarely if ever did a home have access to more than one cabletv network. The local MSO had a monopoly.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took action. They mandated that the cable industry should offer choice to consumers and open up access to their proprietary cable networks. This is why companies such as Tivo can build third party set-top-boxes that include all sorts of interesting features including video streaming, internal transcoders that convert TV to iPad and mobile phone formats, as well as providing better user interfaces, in-home streaming, scheduling recordings from your phone and more responsive on screen TV guides.

If you live in the US and are thankful for Roku, Amazon, Google set-top-boxes that now offer Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, HBO2GO, YouTube and generally more attractive user interfaces, the seeds of those boxes were born out of companies like Tivo, who saw this new technology as a way to provide better experiences in the home (based around TV), and saw the up-take of CableCard by consumers as a sign that disgruntled subscribers wanted better video experiences.

I’ve worked as an engineer on a number of commercial CableCard projects, I’ve read the specs, I’m privy to all the secrets, worked in detail with the hardware. I know the benefits and the warts. CableCard is not a perfect technical solution but its a good start.

We should all care

… which brings me to the point, it’s such a pity its going away.