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Ferree Sees Progress on Compatibility

11/08/2001 2:36 AM Eastern

The day when consumers can hook digital-TV sets to digital-cable systems
without leasing set-top boxes appears to be drawing closer, W. Kenneth Ferree,
chief of the Federal Communications Commission's Cable Services Bureau, said
Wednesday.

The transition to digital television has many parts, including copyright
protection and compatibility between digital-TV sets and digital-cable
systems.

But the Consumer Electronics Association -- most recently in an FCC filing
Nov. 6 -- continues to insist that the cable industry is stalling on
compatibility to drive the penetration of proprietary boxes housing their
channel guides and impulse-purchasing software.

Speaking to reporters, Ferree said he felt that the sides were moving closer
on the critical issue of developing plug-and-play digital-TV sets connected to
digital-cable systems.

'I am actually encouraged by that side of the equation,' Ferree said. 'It's
not all done yet, but it seems like there is significant movement there.'

In the filing, the CEA said it had 'little good news to report' on
compatibility, pinning the blame on the cable industry. As in the past, the
association called on the FCC to take a number of steps, including an early ban
on integrated digital set-top boxes leased by cable operators to their
subscribers.

Ferree provided a different perspective on the issue based on the results of
meetings between cable and consumer-electronics officials and FCC Digital TV
Task Force head Rick Chessen.

'I think they have industries working toward -- despite what you saw in their
recent filings -- some agreement on some key points,' Ferree said. 'It seems
like the people at CableLabs [Cable Television Laboratories Inc.] have made some
significant progress on the middleware side of it.'

Program producers want to ensure that their distributed digital content isn't
replicated endlessly and fed to nonpaying users over the Internet.

But the sides in this dispute remain far apart, with content owners seeking
safeguards and the CEA defending the home recording rights of individuals who
buy their products.

Ferree said resolution of the copy-protection issue could bring finality to
the compatibility dispute.

'I think once we start to resolve some of these other issues related to
things like copy protection, the compatibility piece of this will fall into
place,' he said.

September