Critics Hit Plug-and-Play Deal


When no one complains, things can happen swiftly at the Federal Communications Commission. But when the FCC is asked to referee industry battles, the process can grind to a halt.

The cable and consumer-electronics industries reached an agreement last December to build cable-ready DTV sets that don't need a set-top box to obtain one-way standard analog and digital programming, including premium channels.

Holiday coal

The industries then turned to the FCC for rapid adoption of rules codifying the agreement, urging the agency not to change a period or semicolon because the agreement represented a delicate and fragile compromise.

Last week, major industry players decided to crash the party, claiming the MSO-CE deal was flawed and should not be adopted unless revised.

The opposition could frustrate plans to have plug-and-play DTV sets available on the market as soon as Christmas 2003.

The National Association of Broadcasters and Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc. complained that, under the agreement, it would be legal to build a "cable ready" DTV set that had no capability of receiving analog or digital off-air signals. Both urged the FCC to ensure that any rules require "cable ready" sets to have off-air digital tuners.

A cable industry source indicated it was highly unlikely CE firms would build "cable ready" sets without off-air tuners.

The Motion Picture Association of America is objecting to the agreement, claiming in FCC comments filed March 28 that "it fails to achieve meaningful protection of digital content."

Under the agreement, cable and CE firms agreed to ban selectable output controls, which are used to block high-definition signals from leaving an HD set or cable set-top and connecting to a recording device through a component analog input, which does not have digital copy protection.

Consumer-electronics firms pressed for the selectable output control ban because they did not want a digital copy-protection regime to widow HD equipment with component analog inputs.

SBCA's gripe

The Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association told the FCC that various features of the agreement apply to cable competitors not invited to the negotiating table. The ban on selectable output control, for example, would apply to EchoStar Communications Corp. and DirecTV Inc.

"There are parts of this agreement by which the commission would establish rules which apply to all multichannel video providers, including satellite," NCTA president Robert Sachs said. "It's simply to assure that copy protection is not used as a tool for one industry to gain advantage over another industry in obtaining content."

The idea is that a pay TV distributor that uses selectable output control could gain access to Hollywood's best high-definition content, while a pay TV firm that doesn't would be denied access.

Opposition also arose from within the cable industry.

The American Cable Association, which represents small cable companies, is arguing that the agreement would require the purchase of new set-tops that could be beyond the means of many small MSOs.

Cable systems with less than 750 Megahertz of capacity should be exempt from FCC plug-and-play rules, ACA said.