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Cable ops to push set-tops retail

The cable industry and its suppliers are jumping into to the stalled retail market for set-top cable boxes.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association said Wednesday cable operators across the country will begin working with their set-top box suppliers to offer the devices in consumer electronics stores. For consumers that means they will be able to buy boxes combining traditional channel-surfing functions with new options such as personal video recording and DVD players.

The program will require a great deal of cooperation between cable operators and retailers because boxes in each market must be programmed for the specific local franchises in the market. "It's a huge deal when you look at the operators involved and the amount of preparation necessary," said Mark Smith, NCTA spokesman.

The program will generally benefit Scientific-Atlanta, Motorola, Pioneer, Sony and Pace, all of which supply proprietary boxes to the cable industry. The Consumers Electronics Association, which represents a broader array of manufacturers criticized the initiative as a ploy to give cable-allied equipment makers a head start over competitors.

"This is a far distance from the competitive retail market our industry envisioned," said Michael Petricone, CEA vice president of technology policy.

CEA has repeated expressed frustration that the cable industry has not completed "open cable" specifications that will allow any manufacturer to design boxes that will be compatible with all cable systems.

FCC Cable Services Bureau Chief Ken Ferree said he was "encouraged" by the cable industry's step, but urged the NCTA to complete and commit to open cable specifications.

Since July 2000, cable operators have been required to offer security devices that allow consumers to use their own channel-surfing boxes. None of the boxes are yet available at retail, however.

Beginning in 2005, the FCC will ban the sale of boxes containing both security and channel surfing capabilities.
- Bill McConnell