The cable industry has fought it for years, but earlier this month they finally lost the battle and the FCC’s new rules for cable connections went into effect earlier this month. It’s a complex topic, but here’s the simple explanation. Cable companies have to separate their security features from the channel selection function. Until now, both have been combined in a single settop box that you typically have to lease from the cable company.
This new rule means that consumers can now purchase their own settop boxes that they can take with them when they move. This promises to be as big a change for cable service as when it first became legal to attach your own telephone to the phone company’s wires. (Until then, all the phones were owned by the phone company.)
This change should also mean that you will be able to obtain a CableCard from your cable company more readily than in the past. This is an expansion card that slips into a slot in the back of many HDTVs, that provides the descrambling features required by the cable company. The problem with most CableCards is that they do not provide access to all digital cable features. The current models only communicate one way; they receive the programming. This means that you cannot use interactive features such as pay-per-view or DVR functions which require two-way communications. Cable companies are moving slowly to adopt a new standard interactive system (OCAP) that may help resolve this limitation.
In any case, you can expect to start seeing settop cable boxes for sale at your local big box store. The new rules only apply to new cable installations, so it will take a while for the change to have a major impact on whole cable market. But it’s a good start, and if you use cable, you may want to add CableCard compatibility to your checklist of desired features for your next HDTV.