Cable TV Boxes: Choices Are Coming Soon

Cable subscribers now can buy their own set-top boxes, but they'll have to be patient until manufacturers make the devices available

Responding to a column on a new federal rule that frees cable subscribers to buy their own set-top boxes starting July 1 (see, 6/7/07, "Unchained from the Cable Box" ), reader Michael J. Fox (no relation to the actor) asks: Do you know of any non-cable suppliers of set-top boxes now that July 1 has come and gone?

Ah yes, Independence Day has come and gone, and nothing happened—yet. Under the Federal Communications Commission's new rule, cable companies are now prohibited from distributing "integrated" boxes that combine the jobs of verifying that you're a legitimate subscriber and decoding the cable channel signals for your TV. Instead, the chore of authenticating your subscription is supposed to be handled by a plug-in device called a CableCARD, freeing subscribers to buy the box of their choice.

Cable companies already offer CableCARD set-top boxes from Motorola (MOT), Cisco Systems' Scientific-Atlanta (CSCO), and Matsushita's Panasonic (MC), because they have no choice. (Verizon Communications (VZ) has gotten a waiver to go on using integrated boxes for its FiOS fiber-optic TV service because CableCARD boxes for that system don't yet exist.)

But there is a profound shortage of CableCARD boxes available for retail since these device makers are supplying them only to cable operators. Unwilling to disrupt a comfortable relationship with their cable company customers, and uncertain whether there's adequate demand in the retail market, these manufacturers are in no rush to plunge into selling directly to consumers.

That is going to change, however. I know of at least a couple of interesting new CableCARD-based consumer products that will be announced this summer, and I will be writing about them in future weeks. Even more should hit the market for the holiday season, and I suspect there will be a bunch of products unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

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