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The Gateway and the CableCard

The “gateway” — half cable modem, half set-top box — is slowly advancing into U.S. living rooms as part of the gigantic transition to Internet-protocol-based video distribution.

That’s jargon for “through the cable modem, to screens that connect that way,” in addition to through the old-fashioned juncture between the set-top box and the television.

And that raises this question: Will cable operators be required to keep buying boxes with a CableCard slot, and spending $50 per CableCard, as set-tops morph into gateways?

Answer: Yep. It’s a law that’s still on the books, and it goes like this: If you make a two-way, high definition box, you need a CableCard.

And then there are the “even thoughs”: Even though every TV maker in the land stopped making TV sets with CableCard slots. Even though the FCC itself is anything but hot on CableCards.

Even though there are deployable alternatives — like the unheralded but significant work Comcast did to make its digital terminal adapters (DTAs) capable of firing up in either major security mode (Cisco or Motorola), without CableCards.

On the “What the …” meter, this registers somewhere between ridiculous and nefarious: You’re ordered by law you to do something you already do (secure content) — but differently, and in a way that costs you a lot more.

You do it. None of your competitors have to do it. Just you.

Later, the industry segment that initiated the law in the first place (consumer-electronics companies) stops supporting it. The enforcing agency (FCC) repeatedly backs away from it.

What will happen? Keep an eye on Charter Communications, led by the guy (chairman and CEO Tom Rutledge) who led Cablevision Systems when it got its CableCard waiver back in 2009. Its November 2012 request for an FCC waiver could be granted or denied any day now, and could set the tone for what happens with CableCards inside gateways.

Also watch for proponents of “AllVid” (Best Buy, Google, Sony, TiVo and others) to re-emerge, proposing ways to do things that are already happening, in-market — as though they aren’t already happening.

That’s a short look at the very long, complicated and expensive history of cable and CableCards. More to come.

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