CEMA Issues Fire-Wire Specs

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New York -- The Consumer Electronics Manufacturers
Association has officially lobbed its standards mix into the compatibility arena, annoying
cable observers, who feared that the new "technical solutions" will muck up an
already highly complex problem.

CEMA's four new standards aim to describe how to
connect set-tops to digital-TV receivers -- an issue that the Federal Communications
Commission is keenly aware of, and that FCC chairman William Kennard addressed in a joint
letter to the CEMA and the National Cable Television Association over the summer.

But executives with Cable Television Laboratories Inc.,
cable-equipment suppliers and cable operators seemed perplexed last week.

"What the CEMA has done is to really confuse a lot of
people," argued Jeffrey Krauss, president of Rockville, Md.-based Telecommunications
and Technology Policy, a consultancy.

The CEMA, in three press releases, issued four technical
proposals; while the cable industry, through its OpenCable process, is attempting to come
up with one standard that addresses the ways in which digital set-tops will link up with
other consumer-electronics devices, like digital TVs and VCRs.

Gary Shapiro, president of the CEMA, said during a Broadcasting
& Cable
"Interface" panel here that it was not his intent to create any
confusion.

"We're each dealing with different ways to solve
these issues, and they're not mutually exclusive," Shapiro said, in a manner
more conciliatory than his historically anti-cable stance.

"In terms of what's going on in CableLabs, versus
what we're doing, if there are areas of overlap, I'm sure that they'll be
worked out," he added.

Shapiro was referring to OpenCable's stab at
"fire-wire" and compatible interfaces, which is now known as "HDNI,"
for "Home Digital Network Interface." That effort has the IEEE 1394 fire-wire
standard at its root.

Shapiro used the opportunity to again argue that OpenCable
is an oxymoron because as a CableLabs project, it is open only to CableLabs member
companies. Shapiro also voiced those concerns in a Sept. 10 letter to Kennard.

CableLabs CEO Richard Green said last week that he's
planning to respond to Shapiro's stance via a letter to him.

He declined to comment on the matter until then, opting
instead to point out that the cable industry's process for issuing standards is to
harness CableLabs for specifications development, then to hand off any specs to the
Society of Cable Television Engineers -- an American National Standards
Institute-accredited standards-setting body -- for ratification.

The specs, although technically arcane, are critical to
forming the digital-broadcast future, observers have said.

Digital-TV sets sold this fall for $8,000 each will not be
able to display high-definition TV pictures if they are connected to digital-cable set-top
boxes. The HDTV sets will only include inputs from rooftop-mounted antenna wires and
"component-video" inputs.

That will remain the case until set manufacturers adopt a
standard for the interface between digital set-tops and TV sets. The issue also affects
VCRs and other devices that connect to set-tops and TV sets.

The CEMA's four proposals include: an IEEE 1394
interface, an RF-remodulator interface, a component-video interface and a National
Renewable Security Standard interface.

They were "designed to ensure that consumers who buy
digital-TV sets in the future will be able to receive digital cable and use their
digital-TV sets with other technologies, like direct-broadcast satellite,
digital-versatile-disk players, digital VCRs and computers," according to a prepared
statement describing the interfaces.

The four interfaces, according to CEMA, will provide
consumers and manufacturers with "a myriad of choices" for connecting their TV
sets to cable systems.

But that array of choices is exactly what could create a
hiccup, Krauss said, because cable-equipment suppliers must now discern which of the four
make sense to deploy in forthcoming digital products.

"Just when we thought that the fire-wire issue was
solved, this happens," Krauss said, adding that the CEMA's proposals
"suggest that the TV sets won't necessarily have an HDNI or fire-wire connector,
but one of these others instead."

Plus, issues remain on all fronts, said Laurie Schwartz,
director of advanced platforms and services for CableLabs and the executive running the
OpenCable project.

Schwartz and others said they were particularly concerned
about the CEMA "remodulator-interface" standard, which translates QAM
(quadrature amplitude modulation) signals to VSB (vestigial sideband) formats.
Broadcasters will use VSB, and not QAM, to modulate digital signals for their over-the-air
broadcasts.

David Beddow, executive vice president of
Tele-Communications Inc., said simply, "No thank you," when he was shown the
remodulator-interface spec.

Schwartz said the standard, which the CEMA is calling
EIA-762, doesn't address related and critical issues, like a complete copy-protection
solution and how operators place on-screen displays into digital-TV receivers.

The CEMA also used its Sept. 10 press releases to formalize
the formation of an R4.8 Interface Subcommittee, which will work on the fire-wire
interface.

Frank Kot, senior director of digital-TV-product strategy
for Philips Consumer Electronics Co. and chair of the R4.8 committee, said in a prepared
statement, "We're setting the target specification for digital interconnectivity
among consumer-electronics products, thus allowing consumer-electronics companies to
quickly move ahead with developing digital-TV receivers."

Schwartz said she saw no inherent problems in that effort,
providing that the two industries continue to meet regularly and to forge some kind of
cooperation.

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