A CableCARD is a PCMCIA card (smartcard) that allows U.S. cable customers to consume digital television channels on electronic devices not supplied by the service vendor.
A CableCARD allows consumers to view and record digital cable television channels on digital video recorders, personal computers, and television sets. The card is usually provided by the local cable operator, typically for a nominal monthly fee.
In a broader context, CableCARD refers to a set of technologies created by the United States cable television industry to allow devices from non-cable companies to access content on the cable networks. Some technologies not only refer to the physical card, but also to a device ("Host") that uses the card. Some CableCARD technologies can be used with devices that have no physical CableCARD.
The CableCARD was the outcome of a U.S. federal government objective, directed in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, to provide a robust competitive retail market for set-top boxes so consumers did not have to use proprietary equipment from the cable operators. It was believed that this would provide consumers with more choices and lower costs. Up to 2016, less than 2% of set-top boxes were purchased by consumers in the retail market since CableCARD was rolled out, indicating that CableCARD failed in its objective. Telecom lobbyists argued that the CableCARD initiative actually cost Americans billions of dollars in additional fees, increased energy consumption, and stifled innovation.
CableCARD is a term trademarked by CableLabs for the Point of Deployment (POD) module defined by standards including SCTE 28, SCTE 41, CEA-679, and others. The physical CableCARD is inserted into a slot in the host (typically a digital television set or a set-top box) in order to identify and authorize the customer and to provide proprietary decoding of the encrypted digital cable signal without the need for a proprietary set-top box. The cable tuner, QAM demodulator, and MPEG decoder are part of the host equipment. The card performs any conditional access and decryption functions and provides a MPEG-2 transport stream to the host. The card also receives messages sent over the out-of-band signaling channel by the cable company's headend servers and forwards them to the host.
CableCARDs may be used to access both standard definition and high definition channels as long as they are not part of a switched video system. (This applies to one-way devices only; two-way devices are capable of receiving and viewing a switched video. The ability for one-way devices to receive and view switched video has changed with the addition of the Tuning Resolver Interface Specification. Tuning adaptors and tuning adaptor interfaces have been added to provide communication back to the headend needed for switched video.) CableCARDs are not necessary for viewing unscrambled digital cable channels if the user has a QAM tuner—a feature in some televisions and DVRs. CableCARD support is most common on higher-end televisions that include a special slot for the CableCARD and a built-in cable tuner. The card acts like a unique "key" to unlock the channels and services to which the cable customer has subscribed, and the television's remote control will also control the cable channels. Televisions that support CableCARD should be labeled by the manufacturer as "digital cable-ready" (DCR).
Interactive features such as video on demand rely on the CableCARD Host device being an OpenCable Host Device and have nothing to do with the physical card. This makes the common use of the phrase "CableCARD 2.0" as a requirement for video on demand misleading since two-way services have been provided with the actual cards from the very beginning.