It's a simple vision, really: No cable box on the entertainment center, no cable-box remote control on the coffee table.
For cable subscribers who own a digital-cable-ready television, it's now possible, thanks to a technology called the CableCard. Buy that fancy new HDTV (this feature is limited to digital sets), then have your cable company deliver or install a fat, credit-card-sized module that slips into a slot on the back of the set. Then you can watch a full set of channels -- not just basic cable -- without needing to plug any other boxes into the TV.
For subscribers with digital-cable-ready television sets, this credit-card-sized module can do a regular cable box's work at a lower cost.
(Photo Courtesy of Panasonic)
Not only is this simpler than cable-watching as we've known it, it's also typically cheaper than renting a cable box. Comcast, the dominant cable operator in the Washington area, gives away CableCards for free. Other firms charge only minimal monthly fees, a third or a quarter of what a cable box costs: $1.75 at Adelphia, $1.99 at Cox and $1.50 at Starpower.
There is a trade-off to be made, however. CableCards can't do every task that a cable box can. Specifically, current cards work only "one way": They can't send data back up the cable line but can only receive it. This means that CableCard users can't employ the interactive programming guides many cable operators provide (although the TVs they are plugged into often provide their own program guides). They also don't allow viewers to watch video-on-demand programming or rent a pay-per-view movie just by pressing buttons on the remote; they'll have to call the cable company ahead of time.
But an even bigger obstacle to the CableCard may be that nobody knows it exists. Comcast's site features a "frequently asked questions" file about the cards, but there's no mention of it on the pages that list its available packages and prices -- if you don't know to ask about it, you'd never know Comcast offers such a thing as a CableCard.
Television industry analyst Gary Arlen, president of the Bethesda research firm Arlen Communications Inc., said cable companies are dragging their feet in marketing this technology. "The cable company isn't touting the fact that these CableCards are available," he said. "If you do find out about it and you call, you get a runaround."
At the end of last year, 1 million digital-cable-ready sets had been sold, but only about 30,000 CableCards were in use, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
The one-way nature of today's cards may leave them with an inherently small audience, some industry observers say. The type of customer willing to spend thousands of dollars on a high-definition TV set is often the same type of customer who would want to use such avant-garde features as interactive programming guides and video on demand.
A two-way CableCard has been in the works for about 18 months; this model will be able to send as well as receive data, allowing for all of those higher-end options. But don't expect it to be available soon. The first card took years to develop and the next wave of cards must perform a more complicated series of tricks.
There are also many more companies arguing over how they should work. For one-way CableCards to work, consumer electronics makers and cable operators had to come to terms. The discussions on standards for a two-way card, however, involve movie studios, satellite TV providers, and computing companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. With as many as 100 people sitting in on meetings to hammer out this new standard, it could be a much longer conversation.
Some TV vendors, including Panasonic and Samsung, are attempting to shorten this process by developing two-way cards that work with only cable service. They plan to roll out sets using that technology in 2006 or 2007 -- but that will be possible only if cable operators can agree quickly enough on certain anti-copying provisions.
If and when that happens, early adopters of digital-ready sets may experience a familiar bit of heartache: the pain of owning an obsolete appliance. Two-way cards won't work in televisions built for one-way cards.