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CEA, NCTA Reach Digital Cable Agreement

Two of four long-awaited compatibility standards for digital television and digital cable systems have been ironed out in new voluntary agreements between the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Cable Television Association.

The agreements detail the technical specifications that will enable consumers to receive DTV programming and services over cable systems, and comes in response to the harsh warning issued by Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. At that time, Kennard said the FCC was fed up after six years of assurances that agreements would be reached and was prepared to issue its own mandates for digital-cable compatibility if nothing was in place by April.

Responding to the news, Kennard said the agreements will “jump start the revolution to digital television. It means American consumers are one giant step closer to enjoying digital cable television over their cable systems.”

The new cooperative action offers technical requirements to permit the direct connection of digital television receivers to cable television systems, specifying the signal levels and quality as well as video formats, the CEA said. It also outlines guidelines for carriage of Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) data on cable systems to support on-screen guide functions in digital receivers.

The requirement to carry this data in a station’s digital bit stream, when cable companies will be offering their own program guide services, had been a major sticking point between the two parties.

Subject to certain conditions, PSIP data enables features such as on-screen program guides, virtual channel tables, program name and description (for a minimum 12-hour period) and content advisory information.

Omitted from the agreement is any requirement that all digital cable sets include an IEEE 1394 digital interface, which conceivably would be needed for interactive datacasts, among other things. It will now likely be included as a “step-up” feature in better-grade digital TVs. Still not addressed is the selection of a digital copy protection system when IEEE 1394 digital connections are included. However, Cable Labs, the standards drafting body for the cable television industry, has advised that cable equipment use the Digital Transmission Copy Protection (DTCP) system, which is also known as “5C.”

The two associations also failed to agree on terminology for various levels of digital-cable compatibility, although they assured the FCC that these issues will be determined soon.

Another hotly debated issue in the agreement was the need for Cable Labs certification before a set could be called “digital cable ready.” This could have empowered Cable Labs to test and certify every new television model, creating potential delays to market introductions and possibly requiring additional licensing or certification costs for manufacturers. According to a letter to the FCC, the two industries have agreed to joint testing programs to certify digital cable readiness of various products.

Meanwhile, digital television receivers connected to cable via an RF connector will have to include circuitry for both the Vestigial Side Band modulation scheme (8-VSB) to decode off-air broadcasts and demodulation circuitry for the Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM) scheme, which is supported by most of the cable industry.

This means a majority of the integrated digital television receivers and DTV set-top decoders now on the market will not be cable ready. What remains to be seen is if next-generation products announced at CES for delivery later this year could be made digital cable ready in time to avert the perception of obsolescence by alert shoppers this fall. Kennard said the agreement will clear the way for delivery of cable-compatible digital televisions by Christmas of 2001.

Further, because the agreement is voluntary, maverick TV manufacturers and cable operators could still elect to disregard the conditions and go their own route. The incentive not to do that, however, comes from FCC rules that stipulate consumers must be able to buy set-top boxes at retail stores by July 1, 2000. This is best accomplished using a national standard digital-cable platform. Additionally, cable companies now face stiff competition from satellite TV providers and telcos offering video services, giving cable companies strong market incentive to play by the rules.

Television manufacturers, meanwhile, will have to produce fully featured cable-ready sets in order to keep pace with competition from within their own industry. Failing to comply with the agreements would prevent a set from bearing a cable-ready certification label, which will eventually be developed.

“This is good news for cable customers contemplating a purchase of a digital television receiver,” said Robert Sachs, NCTA president, in a prepared statement. “The cable and consumer electronics industries now have specifications that ensure that signals transmitted on cable will be easily viewed on digital sets. This voluntary solution makes unnecessary government involvement in setting compatibility standards for the dynamic digital TV marketplace.”

“While our industries celebrate today’s announcement, the true winner is the American consumer,” said Gary Shapiro CEA president. “With these agreements, many more consumers will soon be able to access the wonders of digital television through cable. This is yet another giant step forward in the transition to DTV.”

Both executives pledged their respective industries’ commitment to implementing these agreements promptly and to resolving the remaining issues.

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For previous TWICE Online coverage of this topic see…
FCC Declares April Deadline For Cable-Ready DTV Standard, 07-Jan-2000