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Techies Plead for Plug-and-Play

DTV-equipment manufacturers all but went down on bended knee last week to ask the FCC to speed its review of their "plug-and-play" agreement with the cable industry. That deal would pave the way for the manufacture of interactive-ready, cable-compatible TV sets that don't require set-top converter boxes.

In a series of letters to Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree, Thomson, Sony, Zenith, Mitsubishi and others say that, without quick approval of the agreement by the FCC, 2004 will come and go without the truly cable-ready sets consumers are demanding. The pleas follow Ferree's comments three weeks ago predicting that a ruling on the plug-and-play deal may not come until fall.

Without referring to that prediction specifically, nearly every major TV-equipment maker said the FCC must pick up the pace if standards for cable-ready sets are to be settled in time for product lines that will be unveiled next June.

"There is one major action the FCC alone can take: expeditiously approving the plug-and-play agreement," wrote Thomas Hafner, general counsel for Philips Consumer Electronics of North America. Approval of the deal, he said, would "give cable consumers the confidence to purchase the functionality they want."

Last December, the consumer-electronics and cable industries reached agreement on long-standing and contentious disputes over DTV cable-compatibility. Because the FCC establishes technical standards for televisions, the agreed-upon standards can't be incorporated into sets without the commission's OK. The FCC launched a rulemaking on the standards in January.

From the cable industry, Cox and Comcast also sent letters to the FCC but asked for, and got, confidentiality on their contents, which also addressed their business plans for carriage of digital and HD programming.

Neither the Consumer Electronics Association nor the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the main trade groups for the two industries, prepared a letter for Ferree. The letters that did come over the FCC transom answered the commission's call to TV stations, cable operators, set makers and other companies for updates on their efforts to promote the transition to digital television. One of the biggest surprises came from Fox, which agreed to carry half its prime time lineup in 720p high-definition (see story, p. 14) after several years of insisting that the lower-resolution 480p widescreen picture would be sufficient.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell predicted last week that approval of plug-and-play standards would come in time for next summer's models. He nevertheless was somewhat chagrined that the FCC was being criticized for foot-dragging on a deal that the equipment and cable industries took years to reach, in large part because they couldn't agree on copy-protection measures to be included. The FCC is struggling most with determining the extent of its authority to codify copy-protection measures included in the agreement.

"They always find a way to put the blame on us," Powell said.

The equipment manufacturers are also miffed that they remain under a July 1, 2004, deadline to incorporate digital over-the-air broadcast tuners in most sets, even though more than 70% of viewers get their TV over cable. They resent footing the extra bill for broadcast tuners they say will be of limited utility given that few viewers rely on over-the-air signals in analog. Even fewer will rely on over-the-air digital broadcasts, they say, so long as stations are allowed to cut energy costs by transmitting at reduced power levels.

"The commissioner's mandate for integrated digital tuners, coupled with delay in rules for cable compatibility, will result in consumers' being forced to buy expensive technology they cannot use," wrote Robert Perry, vice president of marketing, Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America.

Broadcasters counter that, without the tuner mandate, consumers won't have the means to view the entire digital lineup of a station and broadcasters will have no incentive to roll out more digital programs.