M-Card: Possible Page 3

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And so, as promised, here's our guide to minimize the M-Card pain:

Ordering the Multi-Stream CableCARD from your cable provider. In theory, you can just call the same cable company phone number you call whenever you order any new service. Just make sure the phone person understands exactly what you're asking for. If she doesn't get it, she may convey the wrong request to the cable guy. Ask her to repeat your request. If she sounds less-than-fluent in CableCARD-ese, ask to speak to someone else or a supervisor till you get on the horn with someone who's clued in. Brian Paper of Niveus agrees: "If the customer service rep doesn't know how to get an order placed for CableCARD, I would simply ask to speak with someone else."

The good news: The phone agent should be able to put through your request. "In our experience dealing with one of the larger cable providers - Comcast, Cox, Time Warner, etc. - it's very rare to get a customer service agent on the phone who isn't aware of what CableCARD is or how to arrange for you to obtain it," says Paper. "For the customer service folks it's just another product that can be ordered. They enter the order and schedule an installation time just as they would for a set-top box.

If the cable customer service folk try to discourage you from getting a CableCARD (they may point out that CableCARDs currently can't access pay-per-view or on-demand) "Cable providers must support the use of CableCARDs in systems such as ours," Paper says. "Customers should not take 'No' for an answer."

If the cable company tells you they don't "support" TiVo or Niveus "Because our products are professionally installed by our network of Niveus Authorized Dealers who have been trained on the products and technology, if they were ever told by the cable provider that our products are not supported, our dealers have the knowledge necessary to push back and speak with a supervisor if necessary to get the proper outcome," says Paper. "The key is that cable providers are required by law to provide CableCARDs for systems such as ours. Any cable provider who says they don't support our Windows Vista Media Center-based solution is absolutely incorrect."

FCC rules, by the way, require such support and TiVo, meanwhile, is on the list of approved CableCARD devices from CableLabs, the cards' developer.

Request that the cable guy bring several CableCARDs with him. "We recommend that our dealers request the Cable installer to bring multiple CableCARDs," says Paper. "In some instances, we've seen higher than acceptable failure rates of CableCARDs. Once the CableCARDs are installed and paired correctly, failure rates are very low - it's the CableCARDs that arrive "DOA" that are an issue. Additionally, we recommend that our dealers ask for new CableCARDs that have not been previously paired with any other device. This can also help the installation go smoothly."

A pre-installation follow-up call is a good thing. "Confirming an order or appointment is always a great idea," says Paper. "Especially if special requests are made such as having the installer bring multiple, new CableCARDs."

Follow up with the actual installer, if possible. If you can speak beforehand to the actual cable guy who's coming over, do. Notes Paper, "In some instances, a contractor is used by the cable provider, once an installation appointment is made. The customer may follow up directly to confirm the order and appointment. This would be a good opportunity to discuss the installation to ensure someone knowledgeable is coming out."

When applicable, have a customer-support number handy. Before my cable guy arrived, I was armed with a printout of the Tivo customer support contact info (go here for the phone number). When the inevitable trouble arose, I raced to the phone, and I'm please to say the TiVo wait time was just a few minutes.

Politely interrogate your cable guy. When the big day arrives (as in, when the cable guy finally makes it over), feel him out to see if he understands what an M-Card is supposed to do. If he seems clueless, you might want to start putting in that call to customer support, just in case.

Also, ask to see the actual CableCARD to make sure it's Multi-Stream. Says Paper, "Look at the serial number on it; if it starts with "MA" it's a Multi-Stream Card; if it starts with "SA" it's a Single-Stream Card (at least this is the case for Motorola cards). Also, the CableCARD itself may say 'M-Card' or 'Multi-Stream'."

M-Card installation vs. standard CableCARD From a Windows Media Center perspective, the installation of an M-Card versus Single-Stream Card is identical," says Paper. "However, we do recommend that our dealers request standard CableCARDs instead of M-Cards. While M-Cards should function the same way as standard CableCARDs, our support for M-Cards is relatively new and the digital cable tuner firmware continues to evolve with improved support."

That whole business about cards being "paired" by the cable company Every CableCARD needs to be "paired" before it will function properly," says Paper. "Pairing refers to the authentication or handshake process that needs to occur between the CableCARD and digital cable tuner or 'host' in order to receive the programming the user subscribed to. Without proper pairing, the only channels that can be received are the unencrypted QAM channels."

Proof of success Says Paper: "As it relates to any CableCARD install, before the cable installer leaves, make sure all the channels you subscribe to are being received properly. Be sure to check both standard-def and high-def channels, as we've seen instances where improper pairing may result in all HD channels being received properly while some SD channels are not. If this happens, suggest to the cable installer that they 'initialize and hit' the cards again until all programming is received. Also, be sure to check both tuners in a dual-tuner or M-Card installation. This can be done by checking programming on the first tuner, then recording a channel while checking programming on the second tuner."

The waiting process In my case, it was necessary to go through the entire TiVo setup before I could confirm that both tuners worked. Different setups, though, may not be as grueling.

"The cable provider may suggest that it takes up to 30 minutes or more to receive all the channels a user has subscribed to," says Paper. "But in our experience, the programming is available almost immediately after the pairing process. On a Niveus system, after the pairing process is complete, the software installation should be finished within three to five minutes. In either case, I would request that the cable installer wait until all programming can be confirmed. Unfortunately, in most cases, the pairing process is not something the dealer or user can do without the cable installer, so allowing the cable installer to leave prior to confirming programming may result in another installation appointment if the pairing did not complete successfully."

In other words, the guy may have to sit there for a while and wait. Be prepared with witty banter.

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