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FCC pushes digital TV adoption

The commission says all new TV sets must include digital receivers by 2007, but it's more tentative about techniques to limit illicit copying.

Future television sets sold in the United States must include digital receivers that may include anti-piracy technology, according to federal regulations announced Thursday.

Claiming that speedy action was necessary to spur the adoption of digital TV, the Federal Communications Commission voted at its monthly meeting to approve two proposals: One requires all new TV sets to include digital receivers by 2007; the other suggests techniques to limit illicit copying of digital broadcasts.

The first FCC rule, adopted by a 3-1 vote, orders television manufacturers to include tuners that can receive digital broadcasts. Beginning July 1, 2004, TV sets with screen sizes of 36 inches and larger must include digital receivers.

"Each time a consumer goes out and purchases an analog set, we move farther and farther away from the congressional objective" of free, over-the-air digital TV, said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps.

So far, digital TV sales have languished. An estimated 3 million high-definition TV sets have been sold, but only 12 percent of buyers have digital tuners, with the rest using their sets to watch DVDs or satellite broadcasts. Digital broadcasts are expected to change the way people watch television and to foster a new breed of TV sets. But movie studios and broadcast networks are worried that content converted in digital files would be easily copied and swapped.

FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin opposed the requirement, saying it would unreasonably increase the cost of new sets. "If government intervention is necessary, it must be clear that the benefits outweigh the costs," Martin said.

The second vote, which was unanimous, tentatively says that digital TV transmissions will include a "broadcast flag" designating shows that may not be copied freely. All televisions sold after a certain date would be required to recognize the flag and, if it is present, permit consumers to record broadcasts only in lower-quality analog or encrypted digital formats.

Without such federal regulations, said W. Kenneth Ferree, the head of the FCC's Media Bureau, "near-perfect copies of digital content can be distributed in violation of copyright laws."

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Consumer groups have criticized the measure, saying it could limit traditional fair use rights.

"Right now, I can digitally record a news program in my living room, then watch that recording in another room, or in my office, or at my friend's house," said Chris Murray, an attorney at Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine Consumer Reports. "Will the FCC's rulemaking guarantee that I'll continue to be able to do this in the future?"

FCC officials will not release the text of the draft regulations until next week, but they said Thursday that the rules aim to be sensitive to consumers' concerns. Susan Mort, an attorney in the FCC's Media Bureau, said the process would recognize "privacy and First Amendment concerns (and) consumers' ability to make secure copies of digital TV content for personal use."

The draft rules will also ask for comments on technical impediments to a copy protection regime, whether regulations need to cover broadcasts and receivers, and whether any other mechanism would suffice, the FCC said.

After the agency releases its proposed regulations, it typically allows one to two months for public comment and an extra month for reply comments. If the FCC moves quickly, the commissioners could vote on a final set of regulations by late this year or early 2003.

Copps said he hoped "the record can be expeditiously compiled so we can proceed to final action within a very few months at most."

Some consumer groups have questioned whether the FCC has the legal authority, without specific authorization from Congress, to ban receivers that do not honor the "broadcast flag."

Ferree said that "a very good case" can be made that the FCC has authority to do this under the Communications Act of 1934. But, he admitted, "if we had an express grant, if we had something specific from congress to do this, that's always preferred."

Thursday's meeting came after Congress exerted tremendous pressure on the FCC to advance the availability of digital television while limiting unauthorized redistribution of content. Senate Commerce chairman Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., wrote to FCC Chairman Michael Powell last month, saying, "it is imperative that the FCC quickly arrive at a final resolution and implementation." Top Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives wrote a similar letter at the same time.

The FCC's draft regulations appear to follow recommendations that a working group of broadcasters, studios, and hardware manufacturers published in June. That group, called the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group, concluded after 16 meetings and teleconferences that the idea of earmarking digital TV broadcasts as not copyable "is technically sufficient" and necessary to thwart illicit copying.