Sanjay Talwani /
07.23.2003 12:00 AM
TV Makers: Approve Plug-and-Play
Copyright debate makes quick FCC action unlikely

WASHINGTON

The cable and consumer electronics industries reached their landmark agreement on plug-and-play cable compatibility in December, but half a year later, they're waiting for the FCC to approve the deal.

At stake, say the TV makers, is getting the next generation of TVs -- with built -- in tuners for both over-the -- air ATSC and digital cable -- to stores in plenty of time for the 2004 holiday season.

"The problem is, manufacturers very much want to bring cable plug-and-play DTV sets out by next summer," said CEA VP of Technology Michael Petricone. "And if the commission doesn't move rapidly, given the 12 -- to 18 -- month product cycle that our industry faces, our industry effectively loses a model year, and consumers lose a model year, and its another full year before our 70 million cable households can fully participate in the DTV transition."

THE FCC ASKED

The cable and CE industries express the frustration of those who say they've done everything they were supposed to: They got together and agreed on technical standards for plug-and-play compatibility. They hailed their deal as an example of what industries can do when they solve problems together instead of letting government impose a solution.

In May, the FCC Media Bureau asked several industry players for updates on their DTV progress. The commission got an earful from TV makers who said they're ready to comply with the FCC's mandate for over-the-air receivers. But they want to sell a complete TV that can plug directly into the wall and receive digital cable.

COPY CONUNDRUM

Without the standards in place, manufacturers do not have access to the DFAST (Dynamic Feedback Arrangement Scrambling Technique) license developed by CableLabs. DFAST provides both programmer control and user rights, said Petricone. Without it, manufacturers' only remaining option is the POD-Host Interface License Agreement (PHILA) that Petricone said has "severe implications" for consumer home recording. Under PHILA, for example, it's effectively impossible to build a TV with an integrated PVR, he said."The DFAST license would incorporate encoding rules, which are in essence protections for consumers," Petricone said.

But it's just those "consumer protections" that opponents of the plug-and -- play MOU -- namely content providers like those represented by the Motion Picture Association of America-find the most problematic. MPAA has called DFAST "woefully inadequate" and claims that the consumer -- electronics industry has scrapped the PHILA system -- a regime that several CE companies had formerly signed on to-to serve its own interests.

"The departure of major cable MSOs and CE industry companies from the PHILA process was thus not an attempt to make progress where it had stalled," MPAA told the commission. "It was instead an attempt to circumvent the PHILA process to devise a solution that addressed only their concerns and no others."

MPAA has argued that a "Moore's Law"-type effect in broadband capability will lead to rampant Internet copying of digital content, even the ability to download a high-definition digital movie in five minutes; other respondents have ridiculed that theory and pointed to numerous holes in even the MPAA's copy scheme.

WHAT ABOUT SATELLITE?

Starz Encore Group has complained that the scheme would classify subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) as "copy never" programming, which Starz called "inconsistent with consumer expectations."

EchoStar and DirecTV have questioned why the cable -- CE agreement should have to cover all multichannel video providers and force them to accept copy -- protection measures and standards for plug-and-play. In fact, say the satcasters, plug-and-play may be nice for cable, but it's not a high priority for the devotees of DBS.

Most homes are already prewired for cable, EchoStar noted, whereas DBS generally requires a "truck-roll" for each subscriber. "An EchoStar subscriber generally does not need plug-and-play," the company told the FCC. "The installer does all the plugging and the STB does all the playing. Thus, the Commission should amend the MOU by narrowing its applicability only to cable, not all [multichannel providers]."


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