Earlier this month, some TiVo DVR users received an email from Spectrum with an ominous message.
Citing future improvements to its network, Spectrum warned that “CableCARDs will not be compatible with future service upgrades,” referring to the credit card-sized devices that TiVo relies on to receive cable programming. Without CableCARD support, TiVo’s cable DVRs would be obsolete, as would other CableCARD-reliant devices such as SiliconDust’s HDHomeRun Prime tuner.
But Spectrum customers who are clinging to cable just for the TiVo experience shouldn’t panic just yet. A representative for Charter, which operates the Spectrum brand, told TechHive that any potential changes to CableCARD support are still months away, and the company is working on a solution that would leave support intact. While it’s always wise to evaluate your cord-cutting options, CableCARD users needn’t jump ship unless (or until) Spectrum provides more details.
Spectrum wants to boost its upload speeds
Spectrum’s CableCARD warning emails likely stem from a plan to boost upload speeds in certain markets. This network upgrade, known as a “high-split,” would expand the frequency range for upstream data, potentially letting Spectrum offer the same speeds for uploads as it currently does for downloads.
There’s just one problem: CableCARD currently relies on a narrow slice of that expanded frequency range, using it to receive important configuration and signaling data.
“The complication with high-split is that the out-of-band channel needed by CableCARD technology is in the way,” Nick Kelsey, the CTO of SiliconDust, said via email.
Charter spokesman Rich Ruggiero did not confirm high-split as the reason behind Spectrum’s email, but did reference “upcoming upgrades in select markets” that will “deliver more capacity and faster speeds.” Spectrum’s email to customers encourages them to switch to Spectrum’s Apple TV app or to lease a cable box, with two free years of service and cloud DVR for either.
“The email you saw is an example of how we are communicating regularly with CableCARD users in these markets, to present their options for avoiding any interruptions,” Ruggiero said.
Still, it’s unclear what those interruptions might look like or when they might happen. Ruggiero did not comment on this topic and would not provide further details on Spectrum’s high-split rollout.
A potential solution for CableCARD users
According to SiliconDust’s Nick Kelsey, Spectrum could still support CableCARD even after rolling out its high-split upgrades. This would involve moving the out-of-band channel that CableCARD relies on to an even higher frequency, then using a device inside the home to remap that channel back to its usual place. The HDHomeRun Prime tuner can perform this remapping without any additional hardware. (It’s unclear if the same is true for TiVo.)
Ruggiero also hinted at potential accommodations for CableCARD users, noting that Charter is “finalizing a solution that would allow for continued CableCARD functionality post-upgrade.”
Whether that’s a priority for Charter is another matter. Ruggiero notes just “a fraction of 1%” of Spectrum TV customers currently use CableCARDs. And as of late 2020, less than 500,000 CableCARDs were deployed in retail DVRs such as TiVo nationwide. TiVo DVR users may be a devoted bunch, but there aren’t many of them left.
All of which leaves users in an odd position, with a vague threat of CableCARD support going away and an equally vague possibility that it won’t. (That may explain why some TiVo users see this as a fishing expedition: If Spectrum can convince people to voluntarily turn in their CableCARDs, it may be able to discontinue support without much pushback.)
CableCARD is increasingly irrelevant
No matter what happens in the near term, CableCARD will ultimately waste away. In 2020, the FCC dismantled rules that required cable companies to support CableCARD, and at the same time threw out a plan that would have allowed streaming device makers to integrate cable programming with their hardware.
Meanwhile, TiVo has clearly lost interest in the retail DVR business. It hasn’t released a new DVR product since 2019, which is also when it began stuffing pre-roll ads into users’ recordings. More recently, TiVo has focused on streaming devices, and it merged with patent-licensing firm Xperi in 2020.
SiliconDust has been transitioning away from CableCARD as well. While the three-tuner HDHomeRun Prime remains available, the company cancelled plans for a six-tuner model in late 2020, following the FCC’s CableCARD decision. SiliconDust’s Nick Kelsey has said that the company is investing more into ATSC 3.0, a still-nascent broadcast standard that could also potentially be used by cable operators.
None of this means you need to toss out your existing CableCARD setup. An Xperi spokesperson says the company will continue to support TiVo DVRs, and SiliconDust will do the same for HDHomeRun Prime tuners. Absent stronger statements from Spectrum, it doesn’t sound like CableCARD support is imminently doomed.
But as time goes on, investing in a new CableCARD-based TV setup seems increasingly unwise, and consumers with existing setups should think about formulating a backup plan.
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