WASHINGTON — Federal regulators adopted rules Wednesday to speed the nation's transition to the clearer sights and sounds of digital television.
The Federal Communications Commission voted 5-0 to approve standards for equipment that lets digital cable plug directly into TV sets without the need for a set-top box and a tangle of extra wires. To watch pay television, consumers would insert into the set a security card provided by their cable service.
Manufacturers hope to have high-definition sets with this "plug-and-play" technology in stores by late next year. They say the FCC decision will increase demand and prompt companies to boost production, making the new sets more widely available and affordable.
"History books will mark this as a momentous day in the U.S. transition to digital television," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association. "This is what many consumers have been waiting for."
Companies representing most of the cable and electronics industries agreed in December to make their equipment work together, but the plan needed federal approval.
"Many consumers have been reluctant to invest in the newest televisions because of uncertainties about compatibility with cable systems and set-top boxes," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said at the commission's monthly meeting. He said the new standards will address that problem, increasing the audience for high-definition shows.
Unlike traditional analog television, digital TV signals use the language of computers, allowing for sharper pictures and potential features such as Internet access, video games and multiple programs on one channel. Digital signals can be sent with satellites, by cable or as over-the-air broadcasts.
High-definition television, or HDTV, is another possible feature of digital television. Sets designed for HDTV signals offer more lifelike pictures and sound. The sets cost from about $800 to many thousands of dollars, but prices are dropping.
Cable providers now offer high-definition service to 60 million U.S. households, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said. Electronics makers estimate that 4.3 million digital sets, most of them ready for HDTV, will be sold this year.
Under the rules approved Wednesday, consumers would still need set-top boxes to use two-way services such as video on demand, some pay-per-view programming and customized electronic programming guides. Cable and electronics companies are working on an agreement to simplify two-way services.
The rules also set limits on the what copy protection cable and satellite TV providers can apply to their digital programming. The caps, modeled after existing copyright law, allow providers to prevent people from copying pay-per-view or video-on-demand shows. Viewers would be allowed to copy most other cable shows once for personal use and face no restrictions on copying over-the-air broadcasts.
Digital tuners, either inside a TV or a set-top box, will be needed to receive broadcasts over the airwaves after the nation switches from analog to digital signals. Congress has set a goal of December 2006 for the switchover.
The FCC has ordered that by July 2007 all but the smallest new televisions must have tuners to receive over-the-air digital broadcasts. The first phase of the tuner requirement begins next year.
The electronics industry has a lawsuit pending to block that FCC decision. The companies say the requirement will make sets more expensive and is unnecessary because cable and satellite viewers don't need the tuners. TV makers already plan to include digital tuners in the new sets covered by the standards adopted Wednesday.
Separately, the FCC began reviews of policies governing wireless services in rural areas and pricing rules involving the leasing of telephone networks.