CableCARD Query

Here's an interesting question from Ernie Booth in Raleigh, NC:

Is there any chance that new A/V receivers will include support for OpenCable (2-way) CableCARDs? I have Time-Warner cable and a Panasonic TH-58PZ750U plasma, which does not support CableCARD. T-W supports OpenCable CableCARDs, including its interactive program guide and switched digital channels, for only $2.50/month, which is a great deal.

I doubt very much that A/V receivers will offer support for CableCARD any time soon—if ever—but other types of products, such as TVs and DVRs, currently support CableCARD, a credit-card-sized module that plugs into the device in lieu of a cable box. Up to now, though, that support has been for unidirectional operation only. In other words, data can flow from the cable company to your CableCARD device, but not in the opposite direction. This precludes any service such as video on demand (VOD), interactive program guides, and switched digital channels, which make digital-cable delivery more efficient by sending only the requested channels to your home, sort of like always-on VOD.

Interestingly, CableCARDs themselves have always been able to support two-way communication, but the consumer-electronics manufacturers and cable providers decided to start with unidirectional operation, which led to a generally unfavorable response from consumers. The good news is that cable providers like Time-Warner have started to implement a bidirectional system called tru2way, a somewhat strange marketing moniker given to the underlying technologies called OpenCable and OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform).

For tru2way to work, the CE manufacturers must get on the bandwagon, and that's just what they're starting to do. Last June, companies including Panasonic, Samsung, and Intel signed "memoranda of understanding" to implement tru2way with Comcast, Time-Warner, Cox, Cablevision, Charter, and Bright House Networks, which together represent over 80 percent of all cable subscribers and 105 million homes in the US. One month earlier, Sony and Comcast reached a similar agreement.

Just this month, Panasonic TVs with tru2way support started appearing at retailers in Chicago and Denver in conjunction with Comcast's activation of its tru2way capabilities in those cities. These are the first of what the CE industry hopes will be many markets with tru2way service in the coming months. According to CableLabs, the developer of tru2way, cable providers are expected to implement the technology at their headends by mid to late 2009.

In your particular case, Ernie, the best bet is to hope that TiVo and other DVR manufacturers offer tru2way-enabled products, which you should be able to easily integrate into your system. When that will happen, however, is anyone's guess. Stay tuned for our reports from CES in January, where I hope to see some announcements about this.

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