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TV Makers To FCC: ‘Pass Plug-And-Play Now’

Leading consumer electronics manufacturers called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to quickly approve the digital cable interoperability agreement they struck with the cable industry in December to keep the digital television transition moving forward.

The plea was made by a number of top CE companies in formal responses to a May 20th request for information about the digital television transition from the FCC’s media bureau chief Kenneth Ferree.

In those statements, virtually all manufacturers said they were on track to meet or exceed the FCC’s deadlines requiring integrated ATSC tuners in TV sets, and that they are actively involved in the promotion ofHDTV to consumers and in the education of retailers on digital television products and issues.

In addition to approving the cable plug-and-play agreement, CE makers said the FCC needs to take action to ensure both broadcasters and cable operators continue to move forward in getting digital signals to the public.

Philips Consumer Electronics, for example, called for the following:

  • Ensure terrestrial broadcasters transmit digital signals at full power in order to mitigate reception problems in troublesome areas and to reach all consumers in their current designated market areas.
  • Ensure local broadcasters pass through network HDTV programming in full resolution.
  • Expedite digital-carriage agreements of broadcast stations by local cable operators.
  • Encourage broadcasters to better promote their HDTV programming with advertising on their analog channels and by clearly identifying HDTV content in program guide listings.

The need for a cable interoperability directive colored CE manufacturers’ responses to virtually all the questions asked by the FCC.

Manufacturers became concerned after the recent National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) show, where FCC Chairman Michael Powell indicated a decision on the plug-and-play “memorandum of understanding” might not be considered until September.

“We anticipate that the majority of consumers who will be shopping for HDTV sets will be expecting cable-ready products that work seamlessly with existing cable networks,” Thomson stated in its remarks to the commission. “For this reason, it is imperative that the commission rapidly adopt the HDTV plug-and-play agreement that is now pending before the FCC.”

Mitsubishi’s statement said the FCC’s delay in passing a cable plug-and-play agreement could put the DTV transition “at serious risk.”

“The commission’s mandate for integrated digital tuners effective July 1, 2004, coupled with the delay in putting in place rules for cable compatibility, will result in consumers being forced to buy expensive technology that they cannot use,” said Mitsubishi marketing VP Bob Perry in his remarks to Ferree.

Similarly, Sharp said lack of FCC rulemaking on the cable interoperability issue has hindered its product development plans. “As a result, we may not be able to produce digital cable-ready products that meet the off-air reception mandate deadline of July 1, 2004. Therefore, let me take this opportunity to urge the commission to act with all due speed to adopt such rules,” read Sharp’s statement.

Toshiba called for a mid-summer 2003 decision. “This timing is necessary for us to develop digital cable products for delivery to consumers in 2004,” Toshiba said.

Responding to the FCC question about its planned deployment of digital connectors on equipment, Zenith said its “current plan is to include both the DVI-HDCP and IEEE-1394-DTCP protected inputs on all integrated digital-cable ready plug-and-play HDTV receivers beginning in the 2004 model year.”

However, Zenith cautioned, that the plan depends on the timing of the FCC’s approval of the cable interoperability agreement, “setting forth the standards and specifications for the introduction of plug-and-play digital television cable products and services.”

Pointing to wording in the FCC’s query on manufacturers’ plans to build ATSC over-the-air tuners in all DTV sets produced “with integrated QAM tuning for plug-and-play” cable compatibility, Sony reminded the commission that, “cable compatibility requires more than just a QAM tuner.”

“We urge the Commission to act on these proposals without delay so products entering the market by the beginning of the July 2004 DTV tuner phase-in can be plug-and-play compatible with digital cable,” Sony’s statement added.

Virtually all television manufacturers said they would continue to build ATSC tuners into cable-ready DTVs.

However, Mitsubishi’s Perry warned that “should the Commission not enact rules regarding cable compatibility, [Mitsubishi] may be forced by the competitive market — which closely reflects the value for which consumers are willing to pay — to transition certain products to be classified as monitors and not televisions, and therefore not be subject to the commission’s Digital Tuner mandate.”

Regarding the effectiveness of DTV tuners, most manufacturers stated their DTV tuners work effectively and continue to improve.

However, Philips reminded that “the principles of physics dictate that without sufficient signal strength, acceptable consumer reception will not occur.”

“Even today … the majority of broadcasters are not operating at full transmission power,” Philips said. “For those broadcasters to complain that their signals cannot be received solely due to receiver issues is disingenuous and ignores the true cause: insufficient signal strength.”

Similarly, Thomson suggested the FCC, “at a very minimum, should establish an interim deadline of July 1, 2004 (concurrent with the first digital tuner/decoder deadline), by which all broadcasters must transmit a digital signal of sufficient strength to serve their entire Grade A contour.”

Sony added that it “is concerned that the lack of adequate broadcast signal strength may inhibit sales of digital televisions, because consumers may be unable to determine whether digital signals are present at their location.”

Most manufacturers also said they are now beginning to add copy protected digital interfaces to DTV equipment.

Panasonic reminded the FCC that the IEEE-1394 and DVI connectors “are included in the agreements submitted last year … and commission adoption of those agreements may be expected to contribute to broader implementation of such connectors.”

Thomson told the FCC in addition to digital interfaces, “we believe that the high-definition analog connection will need support for a period of several years, as this has been the primary method of porting HDTV content from set-top receiver to display since the transition began in 1998.

“Millions of consumers will depend upon the analog high-definition Y Pr Pb connection for high-definition content until the affected industries successfully migrate to secure connections.”