"Plug and Play" Gets Green Light

Set-top converter boxes (STBs) may eventually disappear, thanks to cable compatibility rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday, September 10. The rules ratify an agreement reached by cable companies and electronics makers late last year, and insure that new televisions will be able to connect directly to cable feeds nationwide without the need for an adaptive device.

FCC officials expressed hope that adopting the rules would speed the transition to digital broadcasting. "This represents another enormous advance in the high-definition television transition," said FCC chairman Michael Powell. "We now will be able to have high definition television sets that people can more readily bring home and connect to the systems that are delivering high-definition content."

New sets will come equipped with a card slot that will accept a "CableCard" that will let viewers receive the programming of their choice—including high-definition and premium programs. Once digital broadcast copy protection issues are ironed out, CableCards also should permit archiving of programs on digital video recorders or DVD-RAM machines. "Plug and play" rules accommodate different digital interfaces—IEEE-1394 with DTCP, and DVI or HDMI with HDCP. The specification also provides for HD component video connections.

The move was welcomed by lawmakers and by officials of the consumer electronics industry. "The FCC has taken another step toward ensuring the nation's smooth transition to digital television by adopting the 'plug and play' rules," said Representative Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Commerce Committee. "History books will mark this as a momentous day in the US transition to digital television," said Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) president 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."

Panasonic and Hitachi will produce the industry's first cable-ready HDTV sets, to arrive this fall. Other manufacturers are scrambling to get their production lines running, with shipments likely early in 2004.