Coping With CableCard

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So far, so good: That’s the assessment of Jim Brown, Buckeye CableSystem’s director of engineering, about how the operator is dealing with the Federal Communications Commission mandate that went into effect July 1 to deploy only set-top boxes with removable CableCards for controlling access to services.

Buckeye, based in Toledo, Ohio, started deploying CableCard-enabled set-tops from Motorola roughly 30 days ago, Brown said, after it ran out of less-expensive models that had access controls built-in.

“It’s a tough game,” he said. “We tried to make sure our inventory on the DCTs [Motorola’s line of integrated set-tops] was dwindled down. We definitely didn’t want any of those left sitting around after July 1.”

Atlantic Broadband was denied a waiver request for low-end boxes by the FCC on June 29, but the agency will defer enforcement for the operator until Sept. 1.

By then, the Quincy, Mass.-based operator will be ready to comply, spokesman Doug Curran said. “We’ve been prudent enough to prepare,” he said. “We believe there will be sufficient inventory [of CableCard boxes] to meet the deadline.”

BOX MAKERS ON SCHEDULE

The two largest set-top manufacturers also said the transition to CableCard boxes has gone smoothly. “We’re in steady state. We’re business as usual now, so to speak,” said Dave Clark, Scientific Atlanta’s director of product strategy and management.

Similarly, Motorola is “on schedule” to meet the forecast and orders of CableCard-enabled set-top models submitted by customers, said David Goodwin, digital-video solutions product manager for Motorola’s Home & Networks Mobility group.

Scientific Atlanta’s factory in Juarez, Mexico, converted to full production runs of CableCard boxes in mid- to late June, Clark said. The company’s volume is now around 80% to 85% CableCard boxes.

SA ships most orders in four to six weeks, Clark said: “We’re in the normal order cycle that we were in before.”

Smaller operators, however, should expect to wait longer. The National Cable Television Cooperative, which procures equipment on behalf of 1,100 independent operators, said lead times for SA’s top boxes are running about 60 to 90 days, with Motorola coming in at 90 to 120 days.

“Steady production and ready supplies of all models will be a challenge for some months to come,” NCTC vice president of corporate communications Dan Mulvenon said.

Meanwhile, some cable operators were still smarting after the FCC rejected their requests for temporary waivers to the ban.

“I am amazed at how little regard is being given to consumers in this process,” said Patrick Knorr, general manager of Sunflower Broadband, a cable operator in Lawrence, Kan. “Regulating what companies sell to consumers based on standards makes sense, but mandating that equipment I lease [to customers] meets standards based on specifications that double or triple their costs has no logic.”

Atlantic was “disappointed” with the FCC’s ruling, Curran said. “These petitions had been on the FCC’s plate for so long,” he added. “They waited until the last minute to announce their decision.” The operator filed its waiver request in December.

Knorr, who is also chairman of the American Cable Association, said it is illogical for the FCC to require cable companies to deploy CableCard-based set-tops. That will increase the cost of digital-cable service, even though one of the agency’s stated goals is to encourage the transition to all-digital-video transmission.

Indeed, the FCC justified the omnibus waiver it granted to Verizon, Qwest Communications International and other service providers with the rationale that those operators either already offer digital-only transmission or have promised to make the transition to all-digital networks by Feb. 17, 2009.

Knorr added that he was “grateful” the FCC will defer enforcement of the ban for Sunflower until Sept. 1.

RCN: STILL WAITING

Meanwhile, overbuilder RCN last week at press time had yet to hear from the FCC about whether its waiver would be approved or denied. In an e-mail, company spokeswoman Lisa Barder said, “RCN remains hopeful that the commission will grant its waiver request.”

RCN filed a request for a limited waiver Nov. 17, 2006, seeking a waiver to permit it to deploy Motorola’s DCT 700 set-top box until February 2009. In its original filing, the company argued that being able to continue using the DCT 700 would be necessary to move to a fully digital platform “as quickly as possible.”

A remaining question may be whether RCN can move to a 100% digital-video network by Feb. 17, 2009. Committing to that would specifically meet the FCC’s criteria of granting temporary waivers to providers who pledged to eliminate all analog broadcasts by then.

Lacking a decision from the FCC, RCN said in a June 26 letter to the agency, it ordered CableCard-enabled set-tops from Motorola, but it won’t receive them until the end of August at the earliest. As such, the operator requested a deferral of enforcement on the ban.

TV sets, digital recorders and other devices certified for CableCards, as of 3/15: 548

CableCards deployed by 10 largest cable operators, as of 3/15: 259,000

Number deployed by Comcast, as of 2/28: 134,794

Comcast CableCard-installation service calls: 2,680 (three months ended 2/28)

Lease rates for standalone CableCards: No charge (Comcast) to average of $2.24 (Time Warner Cable)

Source: National Cable & Telecommunications Association

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