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Powell boosts DTV

Frustrated by foot-dragging in some industry sectors, FCC Chairman Michael Powell this week will push ahead with digital copy-protection and TV-receiver requirements, looking to break some logjams believed to be stalling the switch from analog to digital television.

Powell's plans to resolve intra-industry disputes over the technology are sure to provoke intense lobbying and court battles over the next few months. In fact, late last week Thomson Multimedia floated a plan that would extend some of Powell's deadlines for requiring DTV tuners in most sets.

Consumer electronics manufacturers and the computer industry even question whether the FCC has legal authority to impose copy restrictions, an issue the FCC will address in the proceeding. But Senate and House leaders two weeks ago urged Powell to go ahead with the measures, apparently handing him sufficient political cover to proceed.

Copy protections for broadcast programming are "imperative" to the switch to DTV transmission because consumers won't buy digital sets until compelling programming is available, wrote Senate Commerce Chairman Fritz Hollings. Reps. Billy Tauzin and John Dingell, the chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively, of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, penned a similar message. Movie and TV studios say they won't make marquee digital content available until there are adequate safeguards against illegal copying and streaming.

The copy-protection mandate is slated to be proposed at the FCC's monthly meeting Aug. 8. If the plan becomes a rule, it could be in place by next year. The proposal will seek public comment on a broad range of issues, including whether the FCC has authority to impose a copy-protection regime and whether the mandate should include a "broadcast flag," which could limit copying of some programming aired by TV stations.

Details of the proposal are still in the works. One source predicted the proposal will seek debate on a broadcast flag standard now being reviewed by movie studios, broadcast and cable networks, consumer electronics makers and the personal computer industry. A broadcast flag is technology that sends a message to copying devices not to allow unauthorized copying or distribution.

Broadcasters insist their free over-the-air programming, not just cable and satellite, be included in any copy protection standard. Without that protection, broadcasters won't have access to new movies and other high-value content. Although they have become less opposed to the idea, the cable industry and movie studios have been reluctant to include broadcasters in copy-protection standards, complaining the requirements for stopping free over-the-air programming are too complex.

Set makers have warned that strong copy protection standards generally will be used to infringe on consumers' legitimate home recording rights, not just to block illegal Internet streaming.

Technology experts also question whether a broadcast flag will work. The technology isn't difficult to defeat and a couple of million digital receivers will be on the market before the safeguard can be incorporated into new equipment.

The FCC initiative has the approval of Rep. Tauzin, who is drafting sweeping DTV legislation that would seek to resolve copy-protection and other technical disputes. Various industry parties failed to meet the Louisiana Republican's July 15 deadline for settling copy-protection disputes.

In another move sure to anger set makers, the FCC is said to be putting the final touches on a requirement to put digital tuners in nearly all TV sets by Dec. 2006. The rule would be voted on Thursday. Powell last month publicly rebuked the Consumer Electronics Association for rejecting his call for a voluntary phase-in of DTV tuners. CEA has vowed to fight any DTV-tuner mandate in court. "This would amount to a multibillion-dollar tax on consumers, and the FCC has no jurisdiction to mandate digital tuners," said CEA technology policy chief Michael Petricone.

Jack Goodman, regulatory attorney for the National Association of Broadcasters, countered that there's "no doubt" the All Tuner Receiver Act, which gave the FCC authority to mandate including of UHF receivers in TV sets, covers a digital tuner mandate.

In April as part of a wide-ranging DTV initiative, Powell called on TV makers to equip half of the sets 36 inches and larger with DTV tuners by Jan. 1, 2004; 100% of them by Jan. 1, 2005; and all sets 13 inches and larger by Dec. 31, 2006.