RealTime IT News

FCC, Industry Advance Digital TV

Consumer electronics groups and broadcasters are hailing a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that paves the way for high-definition and digital television rollouts, as well as a coming era of zapping digital television content to other devices.

The FCC's so-called "Plug & Play" ruling means that retailers will be selling televisions that decrypt and receive one-way digital broadcasts without consumers having to rent or buy a set-top box from cable providers.

A security card inserted into the set would enable the digital broadcasts. Consumers would have to obtain a security card (called a POD or cable card), from their local cable operator, to be inserted into the TV set, the ruling said.

Although consumers will still need to use digital set-top boxes in order to receive two-way services such as video-on-demand and advanced electronic programming guides, the FCC said that the cable and consumer electronics industries are developing an agreement for two-way "plug and play" receivers that would eliminate the need for a set-top box to receive these advanced cable services.

However, left unclear is how the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and other content provider groups might react to the possibility that future televisions could help foment the transfer and wholesale copying of digital content to other devices. The MPAA was said to be reviewing the ruling and has not yet issued a statement.

The ruling not only helps the electronics industry roll out televisions that are compatible with the broadcast industry's mandated switch to digital broadcast signals by 2007, but it also advances the march towards interactive television platforms beyond the cable industry's digital set-top box platform.

The ruling could help advance the consumer electronics industry's move to offer digital-capable televisions that serve as media hubs in the home, able to receive and transmit content and information from different broadcast platforms to an array of consumer devices.

Already, in Europe, where cable broadcasters are not as dominant as they are in the U.S., European-market interactive television players said they are teaming up on "multi-platform application authoring" that lets users transmit media content from their television to other devices.

At the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) 2003 in Amsterdam, BSkyB, Liberate, Microsoft, NDS, NTL, OpenTV, Pace Micro Technology, Telewest, TPS and UPC/Chello Media said they are working together to show the latest advances in multi-platform broadcast services.

BSkyB, for example, said it was demonstrating how a common content format, using WAP-based standards, is being used to deliver content to different target devices and platforms; Microsoft, whose Microsoft TV platform software is being tested by cable providers Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the U.S., said it demonstrating that content with the same look and feel can be provided on a range of set top boxes and delivery platforms.

In Europe, however, the cable industry is not as dominant a delivery platform for digital signals and broadcasts as in the U.S., where by some estimates some 80 million homes are wired to receive cable broadcasts.

In a statement following the Plug & Play ruling Wednesday, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said consumers who want digital television sets will have an easier time connecting them to their cable service and having them work with high definition and other digital programming. "I am more convinced than ever that high definition programming is becoming a competitive differentiator among television programmers," he said.

Plus, he added, the Plug & Play digital broadcast ruling covers the over 35 million Americans that receive television programming exclusively from over-the-air broadcasters, as well as the 30 percent of all television sets in this country that are not connected to cable or satellite service.

The Consumer Electronics Retailing Coalition (CERC), a nonprofit, tax-exempt public interest corporation, said cable television had been the last consumer telecommunications or entertainment service that could be received only by renting a device from the service provider. The ruling on enabling digital Plug and Play for new digital-ready television sets headed for the stores next year changes this dynamic, CERC said.

Members of CERC include Best Buy, Circuit City Stores, RadioShack, Sears,Roebuck and Co.; and the National Retail Federation.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), said 60 million TV households in the United States now can receive high-definition television service from their local cable operator, which was also affected in the FCC's ruling. The 60 million TV households that are now passed by a cable system that offers HD reflects growth of more than 60 percent since the first of the year, the association said.

On the satellite broadcasting side, a spokesman for EchoStar pointed out that the company's DISH Network reaches 108 million homes with its high-definition broadcast signal. The company also is also about to roll out a new high-definition package of programming on Sept. 16th.