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FCC Sets Guidelines For Digital Cable TV

Washington, D.C. -- Fed up with the failure of the consumer electronics, cable, motion picture and broadcast industries to come to terms on digital television labeling issues, the Federal Communications Commission issued new rules on labeling cable-ready digital television receivers.

In a separate action, the commission proposed new rulemaking on copy protection for digital broadcasts carried over cable networks.

Regarding copy protection, the FCC said that the use of anti-copying encryption technology in a navigation device, such as a set-top decoder, "does not violate its security separation agreement" that calls for placing a conditional-access security system in a separate point of deployment (POD) card or device.

The ruling clears the way for CableLabs to begin drafting a license for the Dynamic Feedback Arrangement Scrambling Technique (DFAST) copy-protection system. Under the ruling, the system can be placed in a cable decoder to plug a "gap" that existed between the box and the POD card through which digital data was left in the clear for potential theft or duplication.

Some consumer electronics manufacturers have been critical of DFAST for giving copyright holders and cable operators control over how consumers operate home recording and playback devices.

Using DFAST, it may be possible for content owners to designate a program never be recorded, or determine how long a program can be stored before being erased or locked to the viewer.

The system comes in response to motion picture industry concerns about digital piracy, and its desire to have greater control over what consumers may do with the copyrighted signals they receive. CableLabs, which is developing specifications for the OpenCable digital cable standard, has been working closely with Hollywood to devise a system that studios will agree to.

The FCC's rulemaking did not impose any mandates on restricting home viewers from recording digital content, saying only that users should have recording capability as they have with current analog systems.

Commenting on the ruling, Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro said, "We are pleased that the commission in its actions today appears to recognize that consumers maintain reasonable home recording rights in the digital age. We maintain, however, that the FCC has no legal authority to grant CableLabs permission to mandate copy-protection schemes in the DFAST license.

"These actions must not allow cable providers to become gatekeepers with the ultimate power to determine the home recording and viewing rights of consumers."

Meanwhile, the commission said it reluctantly devised its own set of DTV cable-compatibility labels, after terms agreed to by CEA and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) drew sharp criticism from retailers, including Circuit City, for being too confusing.

The commissioners said they desired a "comprehensive market-driven solution" to the issue, but stepped in after the various industries failed to reach a consensus on new nomenclature.

Notably, the ruling did not require all cable-ready devices to have an IEEE-1394 interface, which had been sought by some members of the cable industry. The connector enables two-way communication between different digital devices.

However, the commission added that it expects consumer electronics makers to come up with products and features that consumers will demand, including digital connections.

The commission's new labels address three levels of digital cable-compatible products and include the following:

· Digital Cable Ready 1: Receivers that will get analog basic, digital basic and digital premium cable programming. A security card or Point of Deployment (POD) module provided by the cable operator is required to view encrypted programming. No IEEE-1394 digital connector or other digital interface is included, and the device does not have two-way interactive capability.

· Digital Cable Ready 2: Receivers with all the features of Digital Cable-Ready 1 models plus an IEEE-1394 digital interface connector. Connection of a receiver in this class to a digital set-top box may support advanced and interactive digital services and programming delivered by the cable system to the set-top box.

· Digital Cable Ready 3: Television receivers with all of Digital Cable-Ready 1 features plus the ability to receive advanced and interactive digital services using a direct connection to the cable system. The FCC said more work is still required for the design specifications for this category, and it is keeping the definition open to add additional requirements for this classification at a later date.