My latest video is about the impending death of CableCARD.
CableCARDs look like the old PCMCIA/cardbus cards our late 90s/early 2000s laptops used but instead plug into cable equipment to access subscription television services. The cards are provided by cable companies to customers.
For a long time getting cable TV to work on a television was as simple as plugging in a coaxial cable – in the past only the premium channels like HBO were scrambled.
But a lot changed when cable went digital in the early 2000s. Cable companies found a new revenue path renting expensive digital boxes to consumers and most TVs lacked the tuning hardware to get service without one. The FCC allowed this provided cable companies gave consumers the option to use their own equipment to access services. CableCARD was the mechanism for that.
I have been using the HDHomerun Prime since 2013. It saved me a ton of money (thousands over the last decade) as I was able to use my own Android TV boxes and DVR vs. paying Comcast a monthly fee for the privilege. In fact my original video about the HDHomerun box was one of the main catalysts for my channel’s growth. Silicondust, the makers of the product, later became a sponsor. The open architecture of the HDHomerun equipment allows it to work with other apps too like Plex, Emby, Channels and many others. Channels and Plex are also sponsors on my YouTube channel.
Their reason for doing so is to make room for better Internet upload speeds to keep up with fiber optic providers that are putting competitive pressure on the cable giants.
Although it’s digital today, cable TV works pretty much the same way it did at its inception as a “community antenna service.” Think of your cable wire as an antenna that can pick up a range of frequencies. In this case those transmissions are not coming over the air but are rather transmitted over the wire. There’s a finite limit as to how many frequencies can be supported on the wire, which means to add services something has to be taken away.
Internet service needs to share the wire with TV stations that are broadcasting 24/7 each on their own frequencies whether somebody is watching or not. And the process of supporting uploads from many “stations” vs. a single downstream transmitter is very complicated and requires a lot of room on the cable to separate the transmissions.
But upstream speeds need to be increased dramatically for cable companies to remain competitive vs. fiber optic providers. Like any highway expansion there might be some homes in the way that have to be cleared to make room for the road. This is exactly what’s happening with CableCARD – the frequencies it uses on coax cables are in the region that would be allocated for this expanded Internet service. The industry calls it “high split.”
Why are cable companies still using coax? Because they’ve managed to squeeze every bit of value they can out of the wire and are still finding ways to do more. Although much of the local cable backbone is fiber optic these days, most homes are still connected over coax. The cost for replacing the connections for hundreds of millions of subscribers would be astronomical. It’s much cheaper to use the cable differently vs. installing a new one.
So it’s likely in the coming months we’ll be seeing announcements about CableCARD support coming to an end. SiliconDust says they can re-route the frequencies CableCARDs use but I doubt there’s enough CableCARD customers out there to warrant going through the amount of work to make that happen. And at some point cable TV will pivot away from always on broadcasts consuming considerable bandwidth to a streaming on-demand model delivered over IP.
And there are some alternatives now. Cable streaming apps run on most mobile and TV devices. I’ll likely switch to the Channels App which supports TVEverywhere – this works almost exactly like my CableCARD although it streams my subscribed content from Comcast over the Internet. And for those of you lucky enough to receive over the air television (I cannot where I live) tuner devices like the over the air HDHomerun boxes are a great solution.
So times are changing. And it’s funny that the thing driving this change is what we’ve all wished for the most: a more competitive local ISP market. Sadly our CableCARDs will be a casualty of that.