Legislation to Allow Third Party Decryption of Cable Signals Met With Hostility by Some in Congress

Posted May 21, 2014 at 3:20pm

Lawmakers from both parties regard with something close to hostility a congressionally mandated ban affecting the contents of the cable boxes that sit atop millions of Americans’ television sets. Texas Democratic Rep. Gene Green said the ban has “cost consumers and business over a billion dollars since 2007 in impeding innovation and efficiency,” and he has already tried to kill it with stand-alone legislation.

But many will also note that it was created with good intentions.

In a major 1996 telecommunications law (PL 104-104), Congress instructed the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that the devices built by independent tuner manufacturers like TiVo would be able to decrypt cable signals. The goal at the time was to foster innovation and bar cable providers from using decryption in their cable boxes to monopolize the tuner industry.

The law required the FCC to work with the cable industry on the mandate. After years of negotiations, the commission ordered the creation of a decryption device and standard that eventually became known as CableCARD. By 2005, the companies had to have the cards ready for sale to third parties and the ban on “set-top integration” by cable providers was set to go into effect, although the ban was pushed back another two years.

At the time, CableCARD’s architects described a future where consumers would see their tuner options expand greatly. They could buy televisions or computers with built-in CableCARDs and eliminate cable boxes altogether or purchase boxes with new and innovative features.

Pop a cable card into your new device and you could watch TV, and since the cable providers had to use the same cards in their own boxes, they couldn’t have an inherent advantage in decryption hardware.

Some manufacturers did produce CableCARD-ready televisions — and today customers can obtain CableCARDs from providers like Comcast to use in independent devices.

But while TiVo became a household name, a large third-party market never really emerged. The boxes most cable customers use still come from their providers.

Experts attribute at least part of those issues in the third-party market to the long process of rolling out CableCARD and associated technical issues, saying that frustrated manufacturers essentially gave up on the idea.