Fire Wire: Not Cables Fault?

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Cable executives were crying foul last week in response to
a story in TheNew York Times that blamed the cable industry for the delay
of high-definition TV.

The Times wrote that first-generation HDTV sets
won't be outfitted with "fire-wire" connectors that allow video data to
move from set-tops, VCRs and digital-versatile-disc players to HDTV sets.

The problem itself is valid, cable engineers said. But
because fire wire, by its very nature, is a cable with two connectors at either end, with
a signaling protocol that moves across it, which consumer-electronics manufacturers
haven't yet resolved, "it's hard to fathom why cable gets the blame,"
industry consultant Walt Ciciora said.

Regardless, if the issue isn't resolved, consumers who
buy HDTV sets this fall will only be able to receive HDTV signals from broadcasters via an
over-the-air antenna connection -- which raises interesting problems for cable programmers
like Home Box Office and Discovery Networks U.S. that plan to produce some programs in
HDTV format.

In March, Cable Television Laboratories Inc. released a
plan to include fire-wire specifications, also known as IEEE 1394 interfaces, in its
OpenCable requirements process for digital set-tops.

And on June 30, CableLabs is hosting a meeting that will
bring cable, consumer-electronics manufacturers, broadcasters and others together to
discuss fire wire and other technical issues, said Richard Green, president and CEO of
CableLabs.

"The [Times] story pointed out valid problems,
but we reject the idea that cable is responsible," Green said. "We didn't
pick the modulation, and we didn't decide that HDTV receivers won't connect with
satellite or DVD players."

Plus, said Green and others, the cable industry is taking
"a proactive and inclusive stance."

The fire-wire issue is not going unnoticed in Washington,
D.C. Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard and commissioner Susan
Ness both alluded to it at last week's commission meeting.

Kennard said it was "important to him" that
"these boxes be able to interact with digital-television sets."

"There is serious concern that the new DTV sets that
will be available this fall [won't be] fully compatible with cable systems carrying
digital signals," Ness said.

Earlier in the week, Ness caught some grief from Senate
Commerce Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for apparently not realizing until
recently the implications of the lack of a fire-wire consensus.

"Where have you been, commissioner Ness?" McCain
asked.

Jeff Krauss, a cable-industry consultant based in
Rockville, Md., blamed the consumer-electronics industry for being unable to come up with
a standard interface to connect digital-TV sets and VCRs.

Cable executives also described the fire-wire conundrum as
only one of several issues that still need to be resolved.

Ted Hearn contributed to this report.

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