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Plug-and-Play On Its Way

Cable-ready digital-TV sets should be on the market by fall 2004, set makers
said following the Federal Communications Commission’s approval Wednesday of
industry-brokered standards for "plug-and-play" sets that don't require
set-top boxes to be compatible with cable TV.

Approval of the standards is intended to speed the transition to digital TV
because it will make digital TV accessible to the 70% of Americans who get TV from
cable and more attractive to the one-half of cable subscribers who don't want set-top

"Many consumers have been reluctant to invest in the newest televisions
because of uncertainties about compatibility with cable systems and set-top
boxes," FCC chairman Michael Powell said.

For cable operators, the introduction of cable-ready digital-TV sets will finally
give them a product that can be combined with rich programming packages to
compete in retail stores with satellite-TV service.

"There are an increasing number of agreements between MSOs and retailers, and
I expect to see more in the future," said Robert Sachs, president of the
National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

The FCC action approves standards negotiated in December 2002 after years of
discussion between Cable Television Laboratories Inc., the cable industry’s research-and-development arm,
and the Consumer Electronics Association.

Included is a copy-protection regimen requiring digital-TV sets to comply with
encoding that signals what programming may be copied and how often.

According to the scheme, pay-per-view and video-on-demand may not be copied;
basic and extended-basic service copied once for inclusion in a personal library
or for time-shifting; and broadcast TV with no limits.

The FCC also agreed to arbitrate disputes over compliance with the copy-protection mandate and other facets of the agreement’s patented picture-scrambling technology.

The agency will also oversee requests to approve content-protection
technologies and connections to other electronic devices.

Cable and satellite operators would be prohibited from reducing the resolution of broadcast programming and must stop using remote signals that allow them to block copying of digital programming via VCRs and other analog devices.

Equipment manufacturers, in order to protect home recording rights, insisted that programming distributors be barred from using so-called selectable-output controls to turn off interfaces between analog and digital devices.

To make sure consumers are adequately informed, sets labeled "digital-cable-ready" must meet technical specifications worked out by the industry groups.

To make high-definition programming available to cable customers who have
already purchased digital-TV sets, by April 1, cable operators must supply HDTV set-top boxes with
connectors necessary for linking to copy devices to any subscribers who
request them.

The FCC also said it wanted additional public comment for deciding on several
other issues, including whether the ban on down-resolution should apply to
nonbroadcast programs, if manufacturers must create informational materials to
educate consumers prior to a sale and the extent to which the rules apply to
small cable systems (which currently can obtain waivers).

The Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association, which was not part
of the plug-and-play negotiations, criticized the FCC for what it believes would bind
DBS providers to restrictions they had no part in negotiating.

"The commission should not have taken any action or imposed regulations until
it took into consideration all of the diverse interests and the repercussions,"
the SBCA said.

FCC Media Bureau chief Ken Ferree, however, called suggestions that other
parties were frozen out "just hooey."

"We’ve had an open record for eight months and tried to accommodate all
legitimate concerns," he added.

Broadcasters are largely happy with the approval because the commission also required that the plug-and-play sets contain digital tuners that make them "unplug-and-play" sets, as well, meaning ready for those who want to get their digital signals off-air.

National Association of Broadcasters president Eddie Fritts said the FCC deserved "enormous credit" for the tuner requirement.

Fritts also used the occasion to make another plug for broadcasters’ long-standing demand for strong cable-carriage protections for broadcasters’ digital-TV signals.

"Step by step, the commission is resolving roadblocks that have delayed the transition," he said. "The time is ripe for the FCC to complete the loop by adopting cable-carriage rules."