The Federal Communications Commission has given its blessing to the plug-and-play agreement hammered out last December by the cable industry and consumer electronics industry. In a unanimous vote, the agency OK’d the pact, which will allow manufacturers to produce televisions that are compatible with cable. The digital-cable-ready TVs, which will eliminate the need to buy or rent set-top boxes (except in the case of DVRs), could be on the market by late 2004. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has been pushing hard for the transition to digital television, said the agreement would speed that along. “Consumers who want digital television sets will have an easier time connecting them to their cable service and having them work with high-definition and other digital programming,” he said in a press statement. The agreement also covers some issues of copyright protection, including a requirement that digital sets comply with encoding signals that denote which programs can be copied and how many copies can be made. For instance, pay-per-view may not be recorded. NCTA president Robert Sachs said, “[The] action is good for consumers, because it will hasten the day when ‘digital cable ready’ television sets will reach the market, making it easier for cable customers to access digital television services such as high-definition television programming without the need for set-top boxes.” However, the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association decried the ruling, claiming it would tie DBS companies to regulations and restrictions that they did not agree to; DBS companies were not parties to the negotiations. But the FCC staff said that the Telecom Act of 1996 mandates that the FCC assure commercial availability of the TV sets, even though the satellite companies were not part of the plug-and-play agreement.

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