Set-Top Makers Hit CableCARD Homestretch

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With 11 weeks to go before the Federal Communications Commission’s July 1 ban on set-tops with integrated security, Motorola and Scientific Atlanta said they will ramp up production of CableCARD boxes next month.

SA delivered test units to operators and expects to ramp up production in early May, with units arriving at customers in mid-May. “We feel we have some runway here,” director of product strategy and management Dave Clark said. “We have a margin that lets people finish some of their processes and testing before the changeover.”

At Motorola, commercial shipments of the first CableCARD boxes started this month. John Burke, senior vice president and general manager of digital-video solutions in the company’s Connected Home Solutions unit, said those initially are in small quantities with several-thousand units shipping this week. Full production runs will ramp up in the latter part of May and into June, he added.

“We stand in pretty good shape -- we’ve made a lot of progress,” he said. “Our U.S.-based customers have begun transitioning their orders [to CableCARD models].”

However, to some operators, getting CableCARD boxes as late as June is cutting it close. “Maybe it’s just-in-time delivery, but there’s not a whole lot of margin for error,” Sunflower Broadband general manager Patrick Knorr said. “You have FCC fines hanging over operators’ heads.”

Lawrence, Kan.-based Sunflower, which has 32,000 subscribers, filed a waiver with the FCC last year to use Motorola’s DCT700. The agency has not yet ruled on that request -- or on more than two dozen others -- but in January, it nixed Comcast’s waiver request for three low-end set-tops, including the DCT700.

The FCC ban will require most cable operators after July 1 to deploy only digital-cable boxes with separate security mechanisms, which, for now, means the removable CableCARD devices. Motorola and SA are developing software-downloadable versions of their conditional-access systems, and Cable Television Laboratories is promoting a vendor-independent specification to do the same thing, but these technologies won’t be available until at least 2008.

Motorola’s first CableCARD units out of the chute support HD and digital-video-recording functions. Burke said the strategy was to take the most complex products and “put those at the front end of the development process. We wanted to clear the harder hurdles first.”

In addition, Burke said, Motorola started with the high-end models because the industry was hoping that the FCC would grant waivers for low-end set-tops. But now, “It appears that there isn’t going to be an opportunity for a waiver on the lower-end boxes,” he added.

Motorola will produce a CableCARD-enabled version of the DCT700, its standard-definition box with no DVR features, called the DCH100.

Burke noted, though, that Motorola will continue to manufacture and sell the DCT700 set-tops and other units with embedded security for customers outside of the United States after July 1. And Clark said SA will continue to supply boxes with embedded security for non-U.S. customers or those that have been granted FCC waivers.

Pace Micro Technology, meanwhile, is currently testing three CableCARD-enabled boxes at various customer sites. The secondary set-top supplier will support CableCARD devices from both Motorola and SA, vice president of sales and marketing Tim O’Loughlin said.

“Most of my customers aren’t looking to place early CableCARD orders,” he added. “They seem to want to purchase a handful, and then to wait and ramp up after the July 1 deadline. No one is moving early to CableCARD.”

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