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FCC tunes in to digital TV issues

Two key items on the agenda this week: copyright protection and hardware sales. A new mandate could pass the cost of digital innovation down to the consumer.

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday will address two critical issues that will affect future releases of digital broadcasting and televisions that can receive digital signals.

During an open meeting, the FCC will address digital broadcast copyright protection as well as a regulation proposed by Congress requiring consumer-electronics makers to build digital television tuners into television sets by 2006.

Sales of digital television sets have been very popular despite limited programming that takes full advantage of the high quality of digital television. More than 3.1 million digital television sets have been sold between the fourth quarter of 1998 and June of this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

Sales growth of digital television sets in 2001 was tied to lower prices and the popularity of DVD players. Requiring makers to add a tuner, which costs around $250, to a set would effectively pass the cost of digital television from broadcasters to American consumers, according to the CEA, and in turn could slow sales.

"The tuner mandate is misdirected," said Jenny Miller, a manager with the CEA covering digital television. "Fewer than 13 percent of Americans rely on over-the-air broadcasting reception and 70 percent rely on cable. The FCC is targeting the wrong group."

The aim behind adding tuners into televisions is to give broadcasters more incentive to provide digital programming as consumers buy sets with the tuners.

FCC representatives declined to comment for this story.

Miller said that sets with tuners aren't selling well compared with sets without tuners. Instead, broadcasters should focus on developing more content that can take advantage of high-definition digital television, according to the CEA, as hardware sales are generally driven by content.

Additionally, an alternative to built-in tuners would be to sell digital television cable set-top boxes, which would address the larger market, the 70 percent of cable subscribers in the United States, Miller said.

The FCC will also discuss Thursday digital broadcast copyright protection and whether to require anti-piracy technology that would prevent viewers from copying material and distributing it on the Internet.