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Heat builds to prevent HDTV “down-rezzing”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit group focused on protecting the digital rights of citizens, has joined other major consumer groups in asking the FCC to prevent satellite and cable television providers from intentionally reducing the quality of digital HD television signals on analog outputs, a practice known as “down-rezzing.”

Endorsed by the motion picture industry as a content-protection measure, the practice would force people who have invested in high-definition digital television equipment to accept inferior-quality, lower-resolution content.

Earlier, the FCC prohibited down-resolution of digital broadcast television content to analog sets when retransmitted by multichannel video programming distributors, such as cable and satellite operators. The EFF responded to the commission’s current request for comment on whether the pay TV services should be prohibited from imposing down-resolution on analog outputs for high-definition non-broadcast digital programming on premium channels such as ESPN, HBO and Showtime.

The EFF said it joins the Consumer Electronics Association, Consumer Electronics Retailers Association, Matsushita, Public Knowledge, and Consumers Union in urging the commission to prohibit this unfair and unjustified practice which could affect six million early adopters of HDTV sets.

“The ‘early-adopter’ consumers who purchased (HD sets) have been instrumental to jumpstarting the DTV transition that the Commission has advocated,” wrote Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney for the EFF. “If down-resolution is permitted, these ‘early adopters’ will find themselves potentially cut off from non-broadcast high-definition programming on cable and satellite, forced to make due with picture quality little better than that afforded by traditional televisions.”

The EFF warned that the harm, however, extends well beyond the owners of these six million “analog-only” displays. “Although HDTV-capable display devices are beginning to include the digital interfaces (such as DVI) that sport content protection restrictions preferred by the Motion Picture Association of America (such as HDCP), these devices also include component analog inputs,” the EFF said.

Many purchasers of these “analog/digital” devices will likely continue to rely on their analog interfaces for many years to come for at least two reasons: First, there are currently no home theater receivers capable of switching among digital video inputs. Accordingly, those who want to switch conveniently between their DVD player, cable set-top box and broadcast DTV tuner will have to rely on component analog interfaces until they replace their home theater receivers with one that supports DVI/HDCP or HDMI switching.

Second, although device manufacturers have the best of intentions, many digital video interfaces included on new devices are not entirely compatible with each other. Where the encrypted DVI/HDCP interfaces fail to interoperate properly, the consumer is forced to fall back on analog interfaces in order to view HD programming. “Where compatibility is the goal, there is no question that the tried-and-tested component analog interfaces are superior to the newly deployed digital DVI/HDCP interfaces,” the EFF said.

The EFF referred to the promise by Hollywood studios to withhold content from television if the down-resolution measure is not implemented as “little more than a veiled threat aimed at consumers — if down-resolution on analog interfaces is not permitted, the movie studios will withhold high-value content.”

The EFF said the MPAA is wrong in claiming that content output over analog outputs is more susceptible to unauthorized Internet redistribution.

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