Cable Systems and DTV: Happily Ever After?

More than two-thirds of American television viewers get their programming by cable. They may soon be able to receive digital television signals over their existing systems, if all goes according to an agreement signed February 23 by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Cable Television Association.

Cable providers have stalled on carrying digital signals, claiming that the new broadcast system mandated by the Federal Communications Commission occupies too much bandwidth. Technical difficulties have apparently been worked out, as the voluntary agreement between the two organizations includes "specifications that ensure that signals transmitted on cable will be easily viewed on digital sets," in the words of NCTA president Robert Sachs. "This voluntary solution makes unnecessary government involvement in setting compatibility standards for the dynamic digital TV marketplace," Sachs said, calling the agreement "good news for cable customers contemplating a purchase of a digital television receiver."

Technical details specify signal levels, video formats, and connection specs for attaching digital television receivers to cable television systems. Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) data on cable systems will support onscreen guide functions in digital receivers. PSIP data enable features such as onscreen program guides.

"The true winner is the American consumer," said CEA president Gary Shapiro. "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." Shapiro and Sachs had nothing but praise for FCC Chairman William Kennard for "expediting industry resolution of these issues and contributing greatly to the success of the joint CEA/NCTA discussions."