Washington -- The "fire-wire" riddle deepened
last week, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) fired off a letter to the Consumer Electronics
Manufacturers Association, asking the organization to explain itself.
McCain asked the CEMA to straighten out conflicting
information that the Senate Commerce Committee has received about the compatibility of
cable-television systems and digital-TV sets that will be sold to consumers in the fall.
Meanwhile, Federal Communications Commission chairman
William Kennard said two weeks ago that he will push for adoption of an industry standard
to ensure that cable digital set-tops can link seamlessly with digital-TV sets.
Kennard called for a fire-wire standard, also known as the
IEEE 1394 specification, saying that it was vital to resolve in order for a smooth
transition to digital to occur.
"I am planning to call together the various industry
stakeholders in this fire-wire debate very shortly and ask that they commit to an
aggressive time frame for completing the standard for this fire wire," Kennard said.
According to industry experts, digital-TV sets costing
$8,000 each will not be able to display high-definition TV pictures if they are connected
to digital-cable set-top boxes, because the HDTV sets will only include inputs from
rooftop-mounted antenna wires and "component-video" inputs.
That will remain the case until a standard for the
interface between digital set-tops and TV sets has been adopted by set manufacturers. The
issue also affects VCRs and other devices that connect to set-tops and TV sets.
McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in
the CEMA letter that he wanted "discrepancies" clarified between July 8
testimony by a broadcasting-industry representative and public comments by a CEMA official
that appeared in Communications Daily the following day.
Working from a transcript of the hearing, McCain pointed to
testimony by a National Association of Broadcasters representative who said that cable
subscribers -- even those equipped with advanced-digital set-tops -- will "need
another box, or another capability," in order to view cable-delivered signals on
forthcoming digital-TV sets.
The published report the next day, however, had CEMA deputy
general counsel Michael Petricone saying, "It's ridiculous to think that set
manufacturers will put out devices that won't work."
McCain asked the CEMA to "resolve the apparent
discrepancy between the testimony at the hearing and Mr. Petricone's comments the
McCain also requested CEMA data on the technical
capabilities of digital-TV receivers with and without the fire-wire plug.
"Exactly what products will the consumer see on DTV
screens, via cable?" McCain asked, noting that the nearly 70 percent of Americans who
watch broadcast channels do so via cable, and that they will likely be among the first to
buy expensive digital sets.
McCain said he was worried that compatibility issues could
jeopardize the transition to digital, with consumers unwilling to buy digital sets that
can't plug into cable boxes.
"The failure of the first generation of digital-TV
sets to perform as these early buyers might reasonably expect could have a serious adverse
impact on the transition to digital television," he said.
Cable executives have said that they will accommodate
broadcast-HDTV formats, but that a straight pass-through of VSB-modulated (vestigial
sideband) signals would chew up large amounts of already-used channel space.
Through its OpenCable initiative, the cable industry three
weeks ago introduced a 30-page draft specification related to fire wire at a meeting with
representatives from 150 consumer-electronics companies.
Kennard said he heard McCain's call loud and clear.
"I think that he was right to recognize that this is
an important consumer issue, and one about which I think we all need to be
concerned," Kennard said.
The fire-wire issue was ventilated in the digital
must-carry notice that the FCC adopted two weeks ago. But Kennard suggested that the fire
wire debate had to be settled before digital-signal-carriage rules were adopted.