The Cable Chronicles: CableCARDs for the Masses at Lastby Ryan Smith on September 15, 2009 12:00 AM EST
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On a final note, the loss of ClearQAM access is likely going to be followed by the loss of some fraction of the HTPC market, where users will not find as much value in a device that can no longer watch or record live TV from their cable company. Because of this potential nosedive in the HTPC market, I would be very surprised if Microsoft stayed entirely mum on the issue. They've put a lot of effort into Windows Media Center as a TV viewing platform and HTPC suite over the years, and this drives a stake right through that given the low adoption of CableCARD systems.As it turns out Microsoft has not stayed mum on the issue. At CEDIA 2009 they gave us our answer: CableCARD is going to come to the masses.
More specifically, CableLabs - the notoriously paranoid R&D and certification arm of the cable TV industry - is finally going to drop its requirement that CableCARD tuners are only used with computers they approve. What’s replacing this is a more nebulous requirement that we’ll get to in a moment, but the ultimate result is that it will finally be possible to buy a CableCARD tuner off of the shelf and use it with most computers, not unlike (and not completely like) you can do today with analog and ClearQAM tuners. Furthermore there will be no additional access restrictions – anything a CableCARD is authorized to receive, will be allowed to be played by a CableCARD equipped PC. We finally have the whole enchilada, and it’s only 3 years later than Microsoft wanted it and nearly a decade after widescale use of digital cable began.
To be frank, we’re not sure what Microsoft has done to get CableLabs to loosen their grip on matters. Certainly there is a DRM component in the use Microsoft’s fairly new PlayReady DRM system, and it’s very likely that the use of Win7’s new Protected Broadcast Driver Architecture is also part of that solution. Beyond that we don’t know what other concessions or bribes were offered at this point, but whatever it was it was enough for Microsoft to finally get their foot firmly in the door of cable television after so many years of trying.
Much of what Microsoft had to do should become apparent once they release their CableCARD compatibly verification tool. The tool, announced at the same time as the rest of the CableCARD announcement, will check whether a PC can “support the solution” so that PC owners can confirm ahead of time whether they’ll be able to use a CableCARD tuner with their PC. Clearly this is some kind of DRM verification cool, but we’re in the dark in the moment as to what it’s going to be checking for. Given the paranoia over at CableLabs, our best guess is that they’re looking to have CableCARD equipped systems locked down similarly to Blu-Ray – this would entail the use of PBDA to securely deliver the stream, and HDCP as an output requirement, with the verification tool checking for all of this. In this case HDCP is the big question; will it be required for digital displays (probably) and will this extend to blocking analog output?
A timeline was not given, but since this is all related to Windows 7, presumably we’ll see everything on the software side come together near Win7’s public launch on Ocotober 22nd. Hardware is going to be a different matter however. Up until now CableCARD tuners have been a one-company game: ATI and their OCUR tuners. We know that Ceton and Hauppauge will be launching tuners, but it’s sounding like those won’t show up until late this year at the earliest. That would leave ATI’s tuner, and we can’t currently confirm whether that’s going to be openly sold and allowed to be used as part of these newly relaxed requirements. Even if the ATI tuners are allowed, they’re going to be a bit of a stopgap solution – they don’t support the use of multistream cards (M-Cards), which means a tuner and CableCARD is necessary for each stream. This is less preferable than the block of tuners + M-Card approach taken by most current CE devices (e.g. Tivo) and forthcoming products like Ceton’s.
Moving on, a few other bits of news came out of CEDIA. Along with wider CableCARD support, Switched Digital Video (SDV) support will be in Windows 7 Media Center. Since the supported tuners are all unidirectional, this will require additional hardware through the use of a rented Tuning Adapter to send channel requests to the head-end. SDV has seen limited deployment thus far, but as cable companies look for additional ways to conserve limited bandwidth, SDV will be seeing wider deployment.
Finally, once again with the cooperation of CableLabs, existing CableCARD computer setups using the ATI tuners will finally start releasing their grip on some recorded programming. Among the various copy protection flags in use is Copy Freely (which as the name implies, means the broadcaster imposes no restrictions), which CableLabs has never allowed CableCARD equipped computers to actually follow. A firmware update will be coming soon for ATI’s tuners that will allow them to pass on the Copy Freely flag along to Windows, which in turn will get Windows to allow copies to be made. It hasn’t been made clear to us whether “freely” will be completely followed however, or if these copies will have DRM on them that limits further copies and what devices they can be played on.
Ultimately, if there’s a downside to any of this, even the lightest DRM requirements will impose a strict limit on who can take advantage of CableCARD tuners. Right now it’s Windows Media Center-only, and that’s probably not going to change. We would be seriously shocked if Apple got Mac OS X on board any time soon, and Linux users (e.g. MythTV) need not apply due to the lack of DRM. Even other Windows DVR applications like SageTV and BeyondTV would be questionable, again for DRM reasons.
Given the impending lockdown of cable TV systems through Privacy Mode, the loosening of restrictions is certainly a good thing; it ensures that there’s still going to be a place for the HTPC when it comes to watching and recording live TV. However the loss of variety in HTPC software and the costs of renting newly-required hardware (CableCARDs and tuning adapters) mean that it’s certainly not a victory for all HTPC users. As it stands, utilizing the analog hole is still going to be the ultimate bridge between cable TV and the HTPC for those that don’t want to live in Microsoft’s world.