The End of CableCARD?

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.

CableCARD – Creative Commons Image – Petiatil 

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.

Sadly though consumers tend to drift towards the tyranny of the default and few CableCARD boxes were ever manufactured. The two remaining ones are the HDHomerun Prime and some Tivo boxes.

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.

In February of 2020 the FCC lifted the CableCARD mandate which now allows for any cable provider to stop supporting them. A few weeks ago Spectrum Cable notified customers that the end is coming.

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.

New Video: Comcast Doubles “Gigabit Pro” Speeds to 6 Gigabits Per Second

About a year and a half ago I installed Comcast’s fiber optic Gigabit Pro service at my home. I documented the process over the course of several weeks that you can see on this playlist.

When the service was first installed in October of 2020 it offered a 2 gigabit connection over an SFP+ circuit along with a second 1 gigabit RJ45 circuit. A few months later they increased the SFP+ speed to 3 gigabits.

This past week Comcast announced they were upping the speed again, this time doubling it to a full 6 gigabits per second over the SFP+ while still maintaining the 1 gig circuit for a total of 7.

But what can you do with that amount of bandwidth realistically? Well, it largely depends on what you’re looking to do along with network conditions and interoperability agreements.

As you’ll see in this week’s Weekly Wrapup, it’s relatively easy to hit the full speed when running a speed test to one of Comcast’s servers, but it’s harder to reach those speeds when testing servers on networks outside of Comcast’s infrastructure. For example when I upload YouTube videos rarely do I see the connection hit 1 gigabit, let alone 6.

Still having a multigigabit connection has been a real game changer for my workflow. I’m very happy with the service reliability and the dramatic reduction in upload times for my videos.

Comcast Ups Gigabit Pro Speeds

Comcast’s fiber optic service got a huge speed increase this week – the plan went from 3 gigabits symmetrical to a whopping 6! This is the second speed increase I’ve received for no extra charge since I had the service installed in 2020. You can see my series detailing the adventure here.

In addition to the six gigabit circuit (available as an SFP+ connection) there’s also an additional 1 gigabit circuit running on ethernet for a total of 7 gigabits. The link speed is 10 so there’s still a little more room to grow. The funny thing when you’re running this fast is finding a speed test that can actually handle the bandwidth!

After taxes I pay around $320 a month for the service. It pays for itself by the fact that uploads that once took me 45 minutes to an hour can now be done in about 30-45 seconds. That means I can upload much closer to my deadline vs. before. Most of my videos get uploaded to three different platforms (YouTube, Floatplane and Amazon) so not having to babysit uploads is a real efficiency gain for me.

Reliability is also immensely better than the coax service. Over the last two years I’ve had maybe 30 minutes or so of downtime. Streaming is rock solid even when pushing 10’s of megabits upstream to multiple platforms. This is metro ethernet, not a shared GPON connection, so you’re getting a very reliable industrial grade connection here. My circuit connects directly to the “head end” about eight miles away with nothing in between.

Getting installed depends on how close you are to a splice point or node. I was fortunate that I lived right down the street from a fiber splice so the construction costs were within the scope of what they cover for an install. If you go beyond that allowance you have to pay the difference. If you’re not near a node or a splice point it can get very expensive.

While there are far less expensive fiber options out there in my area Comcast is the only game in town. That is changing though and I suspect these two big speed increases in the course of the last year are evident that competitors are beginning to catch up.

Frontier, the local phone company here in Connecticut, has emerged from bankruptcy and running fiber all over the place. Verizon and T-Mobile are also offering wireless service for the home along with Starlink.