Cable Plug-And-Play makes headway

Celebrating the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) seal of approval today on the historic “plug-and-play” agreement struck between major cable operators and consumer electronics manufacturersin December 2002, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) lauded the Commission for paving the way for swift and successful delivery of digital high-definition television (HDTV) products to U.S.cable households.

“History books will mark this as a momentous day in the U.S. transition to digital television,” said CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro. “That sound you hear is the excited rumblings of millions of consumers preparing to join the HDTV era now that plug and play is a reality. Consumers now will be able to purchase a high-definition television set, just as they buy analog sets today. They will be able to take it home, plug it into the cable jack in their wall and turn it on to view glorious high-definition programming. This is what many consumers have been waiting for. It’s what they want and what they deserve.”

The Commission’s Order is based on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreed to by 14 consumer electronics companies, representing the majority of HDTV sales in the United States, and seven major cable multiple system operators (MSOs), representing more than 75 percent of all cable subscribers. (See list of companies, attached.)

Currently, more than 450 DTV products are on the market meeting the DTV transition needs of millions. This agreement opens the floodgates for competitively priced and marketed digital cable ready HDTV products at retail that traditionally have been available to consumers exclusively through the cable MSO. Importantly, the national standard agreed to and enacted today also guarantees the portability of digital cable ready HDTVs, ensuring no purchase is for naught.

“With approximately 70 million households in the U.S. relying on cable for their primary television signal, this is a major victory for consumers, the completion of the DTV transition and future innovations resulting from the returned analog broadcast spectrum,” Shapiro continued. “I thank Chairman Powell and the FCC Commissioners for removing one of the final obstacles to the ubiquitous deployment of DTV.”

The plug-and-play agreement not only ensures consumers will be able to buy DTVs that connect to digital cable without a set-top box, but also establishes a long sought after balance between consumer home recording rights and copyright protection through reasonable encoding rules or “rules of the road” for digital content. These rules, which are based on existing law and agreements with content studios, are applicable to all multichannel video programming distributors (MPVDs), including cable.

“It cannot be overstated how important it is that the Commission preserved the consumer protections contained within this agreement,” Shapiro said. “Indeed, the timing of this ruling could not be more appropriate as we approach the 20th anniversary of the landmark Betamax ruling. The right to record and view content – be it analog or digital – for noncommercial purposes has practically become an inalienable right in this country since the Supreme Court’s Betamax ruling in 1984.”

Based on the agreement, digital cable ready HDTV owners will be provided with a secure CableCARD to be inserted into the digital receiver in order to comply with varying degrees of content copy protection levels and prevent theft of cable service. For instance, at least one copy of a digital channel sold by monthly subscription (e.g. basic and HBO) may be made for private and personal use, whereas premium pay-per-view programs may be marked as copy never. Free over-the-air broadcast signals may be copied freely, and may not be reduced in resolution (“down-res’d”) when output from unprotected high definition analog ports.

Significantly, legacy DTV set owners also are protected by this agreement, which bans the use of “selectable-output-controls,” which would have enabled content providers to control content delivery to households from the head end. Without the plug-and-play agreement’s encoding rules, consumers who purchased introductory HDTV sets not equipped with copyprotection-designed digital outputs could be disenfranchised and altogether denied HDTV services and programming. This agreement ensures that today’s DTV products will not be made obsolete in the course of a transformation to nationwide digital video delivery over cable.

Cable and consumer electronics parties of the “plug-and-play” agreement continue to work together on standards for future interactive digital cable TV products.

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