Not Everyone Agrees On Plug-and-Play Deal

The cable and consumer-electronics industries hope the FCC will quickly bless their December agreement on plug-and-play TV-cable compatibility, but parties that weren't in on their deal-notably the broadcast, satellite and content-creation industries-are crying foul, saying the agreement and its DFAST licensing regime would further entrench cable monopolies and do little to further the DTV transition.

Major cable operators and CE makers hailed their December Memorandum of Understanding as a major step to universally compatible digital-cable-ready TVs. But in filings with the commission, several other groups see the proposal as benefiting the signatories at the expense of everyone else.

NAB and the Association for Maximum Service Television say the agreement should include DTV receiver standards, so the new cable-ready DTVs would also receive over-the-air digital signals.

"NAB and MSTV believe that the lack of 8-VSB tuning capability in 'cable-ready' receivers would be contrary to the public interest, frustrate expectations of consumers and leave them with less capable devices, undermine the DTV tuner mandate and slow the DTV transition," the groups said in a joint filing. "Consumers should be able to rely on [over-the-air TV], so that the 'cable-ready' set they buy will continue to work off-air if they stop cable service, when the cable goes down temporarily, particularly in emergency situations, and when they buy a newer DTV and move the original STV set into a non-cable room."

The Motion Picture Association of America took issue with the agreement's copy-protection scheme, saying it imposes a new set of rules that are inconsistent with various privately negotiated license agreements.

"Content providers have long suggested to the cable industry that any license governing set-top boxes needs to include sophisticated content protection, so that cable is not placed at a competitive disadvantage in attracting quality programming vis-à-vis competing services such as satellite," MPAA told the FCC. "Apparently as a result of pressure from the CE industry, however, rather than enabling robust and varied means of content protection in cable devices, the MOU ... meets the challenge of the satellite industry by eliminating various content protection tools enabled in existing private licenses and by asking the FCC to bring the cable industry and its competitors to the lowest common denominator. The result would be to hobble the digital marketplace by restricting the use of sophisticated content protection by other distributors, and to impede the creation of new and beneficial consumer business models."

A group of six computer and software companies, including Dell Computer Corp. and Microsoft Corp., objected to the provision of the deal that leaves bi-directional, or interactive, standards to future negotiations. The companies said that tilts the playing field toward cable and the television and away from that other interactive home device, the PC.

"The Commission must insist that that the elements of the DFAST license... be administered by CableLabs in an open and non-discriminatory fashion so that the FCC's endorsement of the DFAST License regime does not become a pretext for allowing CableLabs to pick the winners and losers in tomorrow's contest to produce cable video and information technologies that best serve consumers' needs.

The cable lobby, however, strongly urged the commission to adopt the agreement "without change."

NCTA's comments to the FCC suggested, among other things, a set of technical standards for cable systems and "cable-ready" DTV products and encoding rules applicable to all MVPDs to help to resolve pending concerns about home recording and viewing. What to do about the "analog hole," or the question of down-resolution of high-value digital content delivered over component analog outputs, remains a question and the NCTA and CEA disagree on how this should be handled. Under the proposed rules, unencrypted, free, over-the-air broadcast programming is not subject to down-resolution, which is a way to prevent copying.

The FCC is accepting reply comments through April 28.