Making good on a promise to Federal Communications
Commission chairman William Kennard, two historically contentious trade organizations
agreed on a critical digital-television interface known as "fire wire" late last
But critical issues still on the table -- most notably
those dealing with digital copy protection -- mean that it could be some time yet before
high-definition television sets and digital-cable boxes are truly compatible.
In a letter sent to the FCC just two days before the Nov. 1
deadline imposed by Kennard, the National Cable Television Association and the Consumer
Electronics Manufacturers Association said they had reached an interindustry consensus on
the IEEE 1394 fire-wire standard.
Kennard had urged cooperation three months ago in a sharply
worded letter to both the NCTA and the CEMA, calling for a Nov. 1 completion of a baseline
IEEE 1394, a high-speed serial data bus, is a standardized
way to move digital information between digital hardware, such as cable boxes, HDTV sets
and yet-to-be-developed digital VCRs.
Digital-television sets currently on the market don't
include the fire-wire interfaces that would allow them to be easily connected to future
generations of digital-cable boxes. Incompatibility with cable is seen as one of several
roadblocks to consumer acceptance of the pricey digital televisions.
In the Oct. 30 letter to Kennard, NCTA president and CEO
Decker Anstrom and CEMA president Gary Shapiro predicted that some consumer-electronics
manufacturers would produce 1394-enabled digital televisions with copy protection by
But none of the sources contacted last week could assure a
quick resolution to copy protection.
And it's not just the cable and electronics industries that
must sign off on copy protection. It's likely that Hollywood -- because it controls the
high-definition content that cable and direct-broadcast satellite companies will most want
to deliver through premium and pay-per-view channels -- will have the final say on which
copy-protection scheme is adopted. And terrestrial broadcasters looking at the possibility
of digital multicasting may want to weigh in on copy protection, as well.
"Every party involved has every incentive to get this
moved forward," said Michael Petricone, director of technology policy for the CEMA.
"Nobody benefits by the copy-protection issues staying unresolved. Everybody is
proceeding forward and working the issues in good faith."
"We don't necessarily want to be under the gun"
when it comes to copy protection, said Ed Milbourn, manager of advanced-television-systems
planning for Thomson Consumer Electronics. "We want to make sure that we do it
Even within the fire-wire standards themselves, the cable
and electronics industries still have a few gaps to bridge.
According to George Hanover, vice president of engineering
for the CEMA, the separate 1394 standards adopted by cable and by the CEMA have
differences in V-chip support, on-screen display syntax and connect commands.
"They're not earth-shattering differences,"
Hanover said. "They're more nuts and bolts than political differences."
The CEMA plans to discuss the fire-wire issues at a meeting
Nov. 11. A separate working group is exploring the issue of copy protection.
When asked if the two industries had truly harmonized their
fire-wire work, or whether the letter to Kennard was just a way to meet his Nov. 1
deadline, Cable Television Laboratories Inc. vice president Laurie Schwartz, who oversees
the industry's OpenCable project, said, "We did it. We really got it done. It's for
real," adding that copy protection is "the big issue of the day."
Milbourn said it was unlikely that Thomson would offer HDTV
sets with both fire-wire and copy-protection features in place by next November. The
timing would depend not only on the agreement of those standards, but also on the use of
them by other companies.
"This will be very much driven by cable,"
Thomson may be a little gun-shy about adding expensive
digital interfaces until it is convinced that cable set-top manufacturers will do the
same. In the early 1990s, the company spent millions of dollars to add EIA (Electronic
Industries Association) multiport connectors to its televisions, believing that cable
would put compatible connectors on its set-tops.
"It never happened," Milbourn said.
It's possible for manufacturers to add fire-wire interfaces
without copy-protection features. But if they do so, they cannot download copy-protection
features into that hardware at a later date.