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Cable Cards, Set-top Boxes and a Whole Lot of Noise

Article Index

Cable card technology is a one-way technology. Viewers can get all the regular, expanded and premium cable channels such as HBO. However, they're not able to receive Pay Per View or On Demand programming, at least not until the second revision of cable card (rev 2), which is rumored to be launching late 2005 early 2006.

That's fine but during our test it became clear that the folks at Comcast on the front lines really didn't know the subtle differences between 'the box' and 'the card.' Four separate times we called and asked about the different services available to cable card users. 3 out of the 4 we were told that yes we could receive the ESPN Gameplan with a cable card installed. We ordered the service two Saturdays in a row and worked with tech support to try and get the service up and running. Only on our last call were we able to confirm that a box would be required for ESPN Gameplan. One guy on the tech support team even admitted, 'I'm not that familiar with the cable card.' ESPN Gameplan is sold as a subscription service but technically it's no different than Pay Per View and that means a box is required.

While we attempted to get answers from Comcast on the capabilities of the cable card and what we could and could not receive we also encountered problems with channels that are simply digital channels. The cable card was not able to deliver a clean HD signal to the Samsung 6168. During our tests we had two service calls to check the signal quality coming into our test facility and the network inside the building. No one was able to explain the digital noise, freezing pictures, pixelization and other strange sporadic behavior while watching high definition broadcast and cable channels such as NBC, ESPN and Discovery HD Theatre. The answer was always, 'you need a box.'

Our investigation uncovered no problems with the signal coming into the set. The signal quality was very good and all of the connectors not being used were properly terminated. Next, we replaced the cable port at the pole outside just in case that was the cause. We also repeatedly asked the service technicians if any other customers using cable cards were experiencing similar issues with HDTV. The answers were short and again they steered us towards installing a cable box. We swapped out cable cards to no avail. Indeed the only solution seemed to be using the cable box.

We contacted Samsung about the cable card issue and they promptly agreed to have a technician come out to make sure the issue was not with the TV. Samsung says the Motorola cable cards that Comcast uses don't work unless they're version 4.5 or greater. Of course the cable cards that Comcast supplies are not labeled by firmware revision. No one at Comcast was able to confirm the card in our test set was firmware version 4.5 or greater. They aren't familiar with any revisions in the works and simply refer to it by its service name, "version 1." One tech did offer that "version 2" would be unveiled later this year or in 2006 and that the new service would attempt to offer all the capabilities of the set top box such as Pay Per View and On Demand. His personal advice, "I doubt it will work, wait a couple of years." Awesome. Thanks!

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