FCC Approves Broadcast Flag

The FCC on Tuesday passed a broadcast flag ruling that effectively gives the electronics industry 18 months to figure out how to make it work. In a unanimous vote with partial dissent from both Democrats, the commissioners ordered that all digital OTA receivers recognize the broadcast flag by July 1, 2005. In its order, the FCC stressed that the flag will not require consumers to buy new equipment, nor will it restrict copying, but that it "seeks only to prevent mass distribution over the Internet."

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the order was "an important step toward preserving the viability of free over-the-air television." The move was lauded by the typically three feuding chiefs of the cable, broadcast and consumer electronic lobbies, by Motion Picture Association of America chief and flag-bearer, Jack Valenti, and by Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), considered most likely to replace the aging Valenti, should he ever retire.

Since the broadcast flag alone consists of bits injected into a DTV signal, additional technologies will be necessary to actually fulfill the intent of the order -- preventing mass Internet distribution of DTV content. As originally proposed by the MPAA, the broadcast flag included the 5C content protection scheme developed by Sony, Intel, Hitachi, Matsushita and Toshiba. That scheme would have prevented all IP distribution of flagged digital content. Companies not involved in creating 5C -- most notably, Philips -- objected on the grounds that it stifled competitive content protection technologies that weren't nearly as restrictive.

Instead of adopting 5C alongside the flag, the FCC set up an interim process for review and certification of output protection schemes, and issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) seeking comment on a permanent process.

The CEA, fearful that a overly stringent protection scheme would render some current TV products obsolete, welcomed the FNPRM as well as the 18-month time frame, for which the organization rallied in response to the MPAA's push for a July 1, 2004 deadline. Philips was also pleased that the FCC did not dictate a single copy protection scheme, instead leaving the field open to competitive developments. Yet developing a flag-compliant, limited-IP-distribution technology within 18 months is nothing to sneeze at, according to Thomas Patton, vice president for government relations for Philips.

"They want a content protection regime in place by July 1, 2005," he said. "It will be a very hard challenge for the FCC, to examine and possibly select technologies that actually meet the objectives - to stop free [mass] Internet distribution and not interfere with fair use rights."

Much of the onus of implementing the flag will fall to the computer makers, whose devices make up the gateway to the Internet. The FCC's order dictates that DTV tuner cards in computers have to reduce high-definition images to "no more than 350,000 pixels per frame, or 720 by 480 pixels for a 4:3 aspect ratio at 30 fps. The problem with that, said on engineer familiar with the order, is that it's very difficult to control the output between the tuner card and the computer bus.

Before the ruling was issued, there were suggestions from various corners of the computer industry that the FCC would be over-stepping its jurisdiction with a broadcast flag. After the ruling was issued, Rep. Lamar Smith, (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary, Internet and Intellectual Property subcommittee expressed similar concerns.

One area of concern for several legislators, along with the CEA and consumer groups, was whether or not news and public interest programming would be exempt from the flag. The FCC ruling included all content, prompting Commissioner Michael Copps to dissent, in part, to the order. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein also dissented in part due to concerns over potential copy restrictions for personal use.