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Tuner rule pending

WASHINGTON

The festive atmosphere surrounding federal approval of plug-and-play overshadowed remaining points of contention, particularly DTV tuners. The fate of whether or not cable-ready digital TV sets must also include over-the-air tuners rests with a panel of U.S. Appeals Court judges.

"It's all over but the final ruling, which we expect to come before the end of the year," said Jeffrey Joseph, vice president of communication and strategic relations for the Consumer Electronic Association, which initiated the appeal.

DIGITAL OTA READY

In passing plug-and-play last month, the Federal Communication Commission required that all television sets labeled "Digital Cable Ready" must include OTA tuners. The action reiterated a similar mandate adopted last year by the FCC. The CEA appealed.

At the Sept. 16 court hearing, CEA attorney Jonathan Nadler argued that OTA tuners added around $250 to the price of a TV set, an unfair expense for consumers who have cable or DBS. FCC attorney Joel Marcus said consumers expect TVs to pick up OTA signals.

"For the past forty years, every broadcast television receiver sold in the U.S. has had the ability to receive every frequency assigned to broadcast television," the FCC told the court in its brief. "Consumers generally still expect the television they purchase to be able to receive over-the-air broadcast signals.

"In that way, should a consumer decide to discontinue cable service, his television set will not be rendered useless."

Until the court issues its ruling, set makers will technically be required to start turning out TVs with OTA tuners by next year. However, new plug-and-play developments are already in the works that could alter manufacturing parameters again. Under the current rulemaking, interactive capabilities such as video-on-demand and impulse pay-per-view are not covered and still require a set-top box -- the very item that plug-and-play was designed to eliminate.

"That's really where you want to get," said Rick Chessen, chairman of the FCC's DTV task force.

The FCC's adoption of the plug-and-play rulemaking was not universally welcomed. Starz Encore Group filed an objection over copy protection measures that would classify its content in a "never copy" category, and the DBS industry objected to a rule that prohibits distributors from downconverting high-definition content, even at a producer's request.