WASHINGTON The U.S. Federal Communications Commission moved last week to resolve a long-running dispute over compatibility between cable TV systems and consumer electronics equipment, as Microsoft Corp. lobbied hard behind the scenes to ensure that the new labeling rules would not lock in 1394 as a required system interface.
The agency announced rules creating three classes of "digital cable-ready" devices. The first would label a receiver as capable of receiving analog, digital cable and premium digital cable signals with no interactive capability. A second class would cover receivers with IEEE 1394 connections designed to link to other devices. A third would provide Class 1 and 2 capabilities as well as receive advanced and interactive services.
FCC officials said the third type of cable-ready device could create consumer confusion. Hence, its review of the labeling issue will continue.
The complicated ruling reflects the many competing interests that have been jockeying for months to shape the FCC's final rules on cable compatibility. At issue is who will control the signal going into the TV receiver and which industry segment will be in the strongest position to offer new features such as interactive services.
With that in mind, Microsoft argued that the Digital Visual Interface is the best solution for linking such systems as set-top boxes and digital TVs. Its lobbying effort is part of an ongoing struggle to define a standard interface for digital consumer gear a battle that has seen many line up behind 1394.
In a Sept. 7 letter to the FCC, Microsoft argued that any DTV labeling scheme determined by voluntary interindustry agreement or by FCC mandate should not impose IEEE 1394 or any other standard to the exclusion of all other standards, such as DVI.
Although Microsoft said it is not opposed to IEEE 1394, the letter states its belief that "1394 has important shortcomings as a standardized DTV display interface with respect to high-bandwidth applications such as high-definition TV."
The FCC's decision last week gives 1394 a boost as a set-top and DTV interface, albeit not an exclusive one. "They haven't said you couldn't use something like DVI," said Richard Doherty, principal of the Envisioneering Group (Seaford, N.Y.). However, by leaving unresolved the definition of the Class 3 system and must-carry rules, the FCC ruling "is so open it will frustrate most set-top and silicon designers," Doherty said.
In its effort to clear compatibility roadblocks between digital cable set-tops and digital TVs that it believes are hindering market penetration of DTV, the FCC may have stepped into a technology debate tangled with diverging industry agendas.
"The FCC is walking into dangerous territory," observed one senior executive in the consumer electronics industry who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Indeed, the commission has clearly moved beyond its efforts to standardize digital signals transmitted over the airwaves.
Frustrated with the slow progress of industry negotiations, the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking in April seeking comments on two unresolved cable compatibility issues. One centers on how to label DTV receivers with varying features, including the proper designation for receivers that provide two-way interactive capability. The other concerns licensing terms for copy protection technology.
In its notice, the FCC said the cable and consumer electronics industries had disagreed on whether every receiver designated "cable ready" should have a 1394 connector, and, more generally, on how to label DTV receivers with divergent features. Bemoaning the lack of industry agreement on licensing terms for copy protection technology, the agency warned, "If this matter were to have an effect on DTV hardware design, then it could delay the introduction of cable-ready DTV receivers."
The cable industry criticized the FCC's cable-ready plan. "We have serious concerns about the FCC's proposed use of the term 'cable ready' as part of digital TV-set labels," said Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA). "For a decade, these words have been confusing to consumers when buying analog TV sets. And they won't help consumers home in on the key distinction in digital TV sets: one-way vs. two-way."
Companies like Microsoft are exploiting the confusion to promote their own technology agendas and perhaps find an opening to influence the commission's policy discussions.
The Microsoft letter petitioned the FCC "not to codify any specific digital interface standard in the commission's rules." The company claims that codification of any specific digital interface standard, such as 1394, would make it more difficult to update or supplement available methods for interconnection between consumer electronics equipment and cable systems.
Microsoft further asked the FCC "to ensure that labeling rules are flexible and accommodate technological developments," saying the labeling approach must "not lock in any particular digital interface or other standard to the preclusion of newer, potentially more advanced technologies, but rather must efficiently evolve as technology evolves."
While some consumer electronics manufacturers agreed with Microsoft's plea for flexible labeling, others say they suspect that Microsoft seeks a PC paradigm that would make the PC the master control over home consumer devices. They speculated that Microsoft may be using its argument to stall the momentum of 1394 within the consumer electronics industry as the digital interface of choice for peer-to-peer interactive applications and home-networking implementations.
Under a deal announced in May, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and NCTA agreed on a common scheme for DTV-labeling information. Under their plan, DTV sets labeled Digital TV-Cable Connect that is, those lacking the 1394/5C copy protection connector would be able to receive analog basic, digital basic and digital premium cable programming from any cable system that offers digital service.
Digital TV-Cable Interactive sets, meanwhile, would incorporate a 1394/5C connector and would be able to receive additional services and programming, including video-on-demand, enhanced program guides and data-enhanced television services with a digital set-top box.
But some consumer electronics manufacturers and large retailers, Circuit City in particular, later objected to the agreement on the grounds that its definition of Digital TV-Cable Interactive is nebulous and that it neglects to discuss set-top labeling. They argue that the cable industry has yet to embrace standards that will ensure nationwide portability of cable-compatible DTV receivers and other navigation devices.
Cable operators continue to allocate the bulk of their resources to the deployment of proprietary features that necessitate the use of operator-specific set-top boxes, manufacturers claim. Some proprietary boxes may include replaceable security modules, but cable operators have not made a serious effort to implement them.
Calling the CEA-NCTA DTV labeling agreement "a giant mess," one consumer-industry source said the consumer companies got together with leading retailers to develop amendments to the DTV-labeling scheme that have since been submitted to the FCC. The source said the changes had not been negotiated with the NCTA.
"We don't want every set to have a high-end 1394 connection," said CEA's Jeff Joseph.
Some consumer-industry players called copy protection the biggest knot. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), one source said, has "cowed" everyone.
The movie studios continue to demand the ability to call the shots on how encoding rules work. But the consumer electronics manufacturers fear such efforts could force unreasonable copy protection requirements. Further, they want to avoid being forced to redesign systems every time the studios change their minds about copy protection schemes. Even within the MPAA, there's dissension on how to handle copy protection.
Microsoft has detailed how advanced set-top boxes, integrated digital television receivers and display devices should be made interoperable in the year 2000 and beyond. Its white paper states that IEEE 1394 lacks the speed for high-definition TV data rates, which are on the order of 1.4 Gbits/second. "While future versions of 1394 may reach speeds in the 1.4-Gbps range, the 1394 interface was not designed to carry sustained HDTV data rates without interruption, as required by television viewing," Microsoft states.
Scott Smyers, vice president of Sony's Interconnect Architecture Lab, part of Sony's U.S. research operation, said that "DVI fills a natural role" as a one-way interface for uncompressed digital signals between a digital system, such as a PC, and a monitor. If the goal is performing elaborate user interface work inside a set-top and sending it to a display, DVI is "a rather easy way to do that," he said. But there are also ways to transmit such information over 1394.
Smyers said DVI's current role is limited to specific applications, such as a one-way interface with a display. If a device with DVI needs to connect with multiple sources, storage devices or screens for bidirectional command and control applications, it would take at least four more years to bring DVI up to that level, he said.