NCTA: Problems with Cable-Ready DTVs

Some consumers are having problems with their digital plug-and-play TV sets due to mistakes by consumer-electronics companies, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association reported last week in a government filing.

The problems have caused cable companies to deploy technicians to resolve installation snafus. But the NCTA said that once first-generation issues have been addressed, it expected the truck rolls to stop and self-installation to become the routine.

The trade group cited two problems for the Federal Communications Commission in a Sept. 7 letter that was attached to a second FCC letter filed Sept. 30. The NCTA did not name the manufacturers that put the faulty units on the market.

One plug-and-play set, the association said, had weak pins due to a “soldering-temperature error,” causing the pins to bend when consumers installed CableCARDs, the credit-card-sized devices that authorizes reception of scrambled programming.

Another unit “will not boot with CableCARDs that work in other manufacturers’ DTV sets,” the NCTA said. Although the set maker developed a code to resolve the problem, units in the pipeline that need fixing can’t be adjusted until “after consumer purchase,” the trade group added.

“As with any new technology, in deploying CableCARDs, cable operators have been navigating though some start-up issues,” the NCTA told the FCC.

The NCTA informed the agency that through August, the top 10 cable companies had deployed 700 CableCARDs. Some MSOs are giving them to consumers, while others are charging up to $2.95 per month.

NCTA members and the consumer-electronics industry reached a deal endorsed by the FCC on the development of digital-TV sets that are compatible with one-way digital-cable services, HDTV formats and premium services. The digital plug-and-play units were intended to serve consumers who didn’t want to lease cable set-top boxes.

The NCTA said 11 major-brand TV-set makers -- including Sony Electronics Corp., Panasonic Consumer Electronics and Samsung Electronics America Inc. -- are marketing 60 new plug-and-play digital sets.

As part of the agreement with digital-TV manufacturers, cable companies agreed to invest the resources to respond to in-home consumer problems as they arose.

“Armies of cable engineering personnel, from field technicians to corporate engineers, have continued to spend time troubleshooting and fixing [digital plug-and play TV sets] as they appear in consumer homes,” the association added.

The cable trade group also used the letter to reiterate opposition to an FCC ban on MSO deployment of new digital set-top boxes that don’t support CableCARDs after July 2006.

The inability to deploy integrated digital set-tops, the NCTA claimed, would jack up box costs and slow cable-subscriber migration to digital TV.

TiVo Inc., a maker of commercial-zapping digital-video recorders, is pressing the FCC to keep the proposed ban, arguing that it would be unable economically to market DVRs with channel-surfing capabilities if cable operators were allowed to lease boxes with embedded anti-theft controls.