Digital Television Takes a Leap

A key group of consumer electronics and cable companies struck an agreement to streamline the cable television industry by enabling consumers to buy digital televisions (DTVs) that connect directly to digital cable, without the need for ancillary cable products such as set-top converter boxes.

Under the preliminary agreement, 14 consumer electronics companies and seven key cable system operators intend to make the transition from analog to digital television easier for the huge number of consumers who have not yet converted their home viewing systems with “cable-ready” DTV products.

The so-called memorandum of understanding was drafted with the help of the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the two main industry groups that lend considerable weight to the initiative.

The agreement will be submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for proposed adoption of a national “plug-and-play” digital cable television standard that is expected to jumpstart the digital cable industry and unify the marketplace for High Definition TV services.

Consumer electronics companies that signed the pact were: Hitachi America, JVC Americas Corp., Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America, Philips Consumer Electronics North America, Pioneer North America, Samsung Electronics Corporation, Sharp Electronics Corporation, Sony Electronics, Toshiba America Consumer Electronics, Yamaha Electronics Corporation, and Zenith Electronics.

Cable companies included Advance/Newhouse Communications, Cable One, CSC Holdings (Cablevision Systems), Charter Communications, Comcast Cable Communications, Cox Communications, Insight Communications Company, and Time Warner Cable.

“When implemented, this agreement will provide the certainty the cable and consumer electronics industries need to build products and develop services to spur the digital transition, while preserving the ability of both industries to create innovative products and services on a timely basis in the rapidly changing digital environment,” the companies said in a letter to FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell.

Both industries are urging the FCC to adopt regulations for a national plug-and-play digital cable TV standard. Pending a response from the FCC, the proposed technology could be in place as early as 2004. However, the agreement already has considerable political support.

“The agreement would not have been reached without the strong encouragement and support of House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton, FCC Chairman Michael Powell and other government officials,” said Robert Sachs, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Standards agreed upon by the signatories included a regulatory framework for support of digital TV receivers, digital recorders with secure interfaces, and other devices on cable systems; a draft security technology license to ensure that content can be transferred securely in the home network by consumers; and encoding rules to resolve pending copyright-based concerns about home recording and viewing.

The Agreement also touched upon the protection of consumer home recording rights and copyright owners’ rights for securing digital content. The signatories of the multiple system operators have reportedly agreed to support recordable IEEE 1394 connections on high-definition set-top boxes as well as FCC labeling regulations that in the future will display interfaces with copy protection controls.

In addition, the parties agreed to begin working together immediately on standards for future interactive digital cable television products as well as the development and distribution of high quality digital content.

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