Opening the POD Door
Judging by what the first prototypes shown at January's Consumer Electronics Show looked like, the POD module is much like a standard PC Card (a.k.a., PCMCIA) — the kind that plugs into laptop computers. What this card does is provide conditional access — it lets customers see the channels they are paying for (subscribed to), while blocking out channels that haven't been purchased.
As you can imagine, conditional access is a very sensitive area of the cable TV business. Literally billions of dollars, annually, hinge on the security of the system. No wonder cable companies have been leery. Over on the satellite side of the business — which the POD agreement does not cover — smart card security breaches have been rampant, with charges of high-level sabotage to undermine competitor's conditional access systems.
To maintain control, each cable TV system will distribute its own POD cards. Thus, when someone with a POD-equipped TV moves from New York to Philadelphia, the old POD card should get returned to the cable TV company in New York, and a new POD card must be obtained from the Philadelphia cable TV company. Fees for the POD cards will probably vary by cable system.
Note that the POD card does not by itself unlock anything — if a consumer fails to return a POD card, it will not offer free access to cable TV, any more than a modern cable TV box can offer free access. From its central "headend," the cable company can de-activate the box, and likewise with the POD card. That's what conditional access is all about.
The POD-equipped TVs will feature three types of tuning — NTSC for traditional analog TV, ATSC for over-the-air HDTV (DTV) and QAM for cable TV. Fortunately, though different RF modulation is used for HDTV/DTV and digital cable, they use similar MPEG data compression, thus allowing the tuners to share some resources.