PCs Vs. TVs in Telco Reform

The House telecom reform bill defeats an effort by the television industry to lock up the consumers' on-ramp to the information highway, say computer companies

There's a major victory for the infotech industry hidden away in the House's version of the telecom reform bill, say some infotech industry officials. It's a measure intended to help computers -- rather than televisions -- become the consumer's window into cyberspace.

The measure, promoted by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., requires the Federal Communications Commission to establish flexible technical standards for cable networks, video-cassette recorders and televisions.

According to Eshoo, the TV industry -- led by the Arlington, Va.-based Electronics Industries Association -- has been pushing for overly stringent standards that would have bumped computer-makers out of the picture, allowing the TV industry to dominate consumer on-ramps.

"The amendment is really all about the future.... The EIA is clinging to the past," she said.

But Peter McCloskey, the EIA's president, doesn't see it that way. Eshoo and her supporters "have muddied the waters.... [The issue] has nothing to do with the computer people," said McCloskey.

The center of the controversy is the FCC's proposal for a new standard that would let televisions, cable networks and home video-cassette recorders operate together. If implemented, the IS-150 "decoder interface" standard would allow people to record a television program on one cable channel, while watching another channel, and would allow them to program their VCRs to sequentially record two programs on different channels.

To accomplish this, the decoder standard includes a new computer language, dubbed Common Applications Language, and new connections.

But the language and plugs restrict open competition, argues Glenn Manishim, a Washington-based counsel for Echelon Corp., Palo Alto, Calif. Echelon, which is based in Eshoo's district, is developing home-automation equipment that could be used by consumers to control various electrical and electronic appliances, such as washing machines and VCRs.

Because the standard was designed to suit the interests of the large television-building companies that dominate EIA's consumer electronics division, "it has disastrous effects" on rival products that use different technical standards, such as home-automation technologies, he said.

The home automation market is small, but is expected to grow quickly over the next few years. The major players are power companies, regional phone companies, computer companies and companies such as Echelon.

Also, "the EIA would make the TV the master" window into cyberspace for consumers, said Manishim. The computer companies backing Eshoo, such as Intel and Apple, which want to develop computer-based rivals to traditional televisions would be placed at a disadvantage by the decoder standard, he said.

And if the decoder interface standard is implemented, computer-based TVs that do not implement the standard would be forced to label their products as "not cable-ready," he said. The decoder standard is still only a draft, and will be reviewed by industry for three to six months.

In contrast, Eshoo's measure, voted into the House version of the telecom reform by the commerce committee, requires the FCC to "fix cable-compatibility in the narrowest way possible," said Manishim. Unless it can be countered by opponents, the Eshoo proposal will be included in the final version of the telecom reform bill expected to be completed by November.

The decoder interface "is an elegant solution.... [EIA members] are flabbergasted" at Eshoo's argument, McCloskey said.

The decoder standard was developed by an industry group that included Echelon, and does not shut out the computer-TV companies, he said.

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