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Cable and CE manufacturers agree on DTV compatibility issues

The goal is to simplify home installations for digital television equipment. Under a plan hatched last week in Washington, D.C., future digital television displays could connect to digital cable systems without a set-top box, allowing “plug-and-play” usability for the reception of most premium and high-definition cable programming.

Fourteen consumer electronics companies, representing the majority of HDTV equipment sales in the U.S., and seven major cable operators, representing more than 75 percent of all cable subscribers, found common ground in proposing new connectivity standards.

The proposed agreement consists of a package including voluntary commitments by the signatories, and proposals for rules to be adopted by the FCC, that, once adopted, would resolve a range of other issues across the entire pay television industry.

The compromise includes a set of technical standards for cable systems and “cable-ready” DTV products (and testing procedures to assure compatibility); a proposed regulatory framework for support of digital TV receivers, digital recorders with secure interfaces and other devices on cable systems; a draft security technology license to ensure that premium content can be transferred securely in a home network by consumers; and “encoding rules” to resolve pending copyright-based concerns about home recording and viewing.

In addition, the parties agreed to begin working together immediately on standards for future interactive digital cable TV products.

Negotiations were conducted directly among company representatives and facilitated by their respective trade associations, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA). Not included were direct-to-home satellite operators and major copyright holders, such as the Hollywood motion picture and television studios.

If implemented, the plan would enable the next generation of digital television sets to receive one-way cable services without the need for set-top converter boxes; enable consumers to receive HDTV signals with full image quality and record digital content; allow for an array of new devices to be connected to the new HDTV sets; and permit access to cable's two-way services through digital connectors on high-definition digital TV sets. Interactive and video-on-demand services would still require a set-top box.

The parties said a key element of the agreement relates to secure digital interfaces that protect consumers’ home recording rights along with copyright owners' rights to secure their digital content. Major cable system operators have agreed to support recordable IEEE 1394 (“Firewire”) connections on HD set-top boxes. In turn, digital TV manufacturers have agreed to support FCC labeling regulations that specify Digital Visual Interface (DVI)/High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) (or HDMI/HDCP when available) display interfaces with copy protection controls in future “cable-ready” HDTV products.

In addition, the agreement establishes “rules of the road” on home recording rights and proposes copy protection rules for digital content that are based on existing law and studio-consumer electronics agreements.

To take effect, the deal must be implemented by the FCC, which means it will apply to satellite operators, television program producers and the Hollywood studios as well. Since none of these parties participated in the agreement, it is expected that some provisions might draw opposition.

One remaining controversial area involves the encryption of HDTV programming. The proposal, according to some sources, would bar cable and satellite operators from scrambling the signals all the way to the TV set. End-to-end encryption, a technology demanded by Hollywood, might protect programs against piracy, but would also prevent first-generation analog HDTV sets from displaying them. It’s far from certain whether the studios will go along.

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