The following article originally appeared in HDTVetc magazine in their October 2003 issue. This previously published article contains some product information that is dated to mid-2003, and should not be considered news when reading it today. Although the content has historical value, the primary value is the tutorial substance and my analysis to reach a forecasted vision of future market conditions (that actually happened later in time) which helped many consumers in making the right purchasing decisions. Some statements of the article could be considered time-travel to the future if you project your reading imagination to back then; the vision has now transformed itself into events and conditions that actually happened. Enjoy the reading.
The cable and consumer electronics industries are moving towards integrating over-the-air (OTA) and cable HD tuners into HDTV sets. It is certainly good news that the cable industry is finally getting on board of HDTV.
Since about 70% of TV viewers subscribe to cable, this has the potential of accelerating the adoption of HDTV in general, at a pace we have not seen over the last 5 years. The integration of tuners into TVs seems to be an attractive proposition for everyone.
This article analyzes the subject to help you decide what is best for you. Let us start with some background regarding OTA and cable tuners, mandates, agreements and the FCC:
DTV Over-the-Air ATSC tuners (require an antenna)
In 2002, television manufacturers and retailers were asked to adhere to a phased-in schedule that would lead to terrestrial OTA DTV tuners in all television sets by Dec 31, 2006.
The FCC then mandated that all TV sets 13-inches and larger and other products that normally carry TV tuners -such as VCRs, personal video recorders, etc.- are to include ATSC terrestrial DTV tuners by July 1, 2007.
Under the five-year phased-in guidelines DTV tuners are to be added to 50 percent of sets measuring 36 inches and larger by July 1, 2004, and 100 percent by July 1, 2005. After that, 50 percent of sets measuring 25 inches to 35 inches are to add DTV tuners by July 1, 2005, and 100 percent by July 1, 2006. The rest are to conform by July 1, 2007.
At that time the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) charged the decision would put an undue cost burden on consumers and filed a lawsuit to overturn the order in October 2002. One main factor for such appeal is the fact that approximately 70 percent of TV viewers receive their signal from cable, and those will be switching to a DTV cable set top box, not needing the DTV over the air tuner mandated on their new TV sets.
According to the CEA "Manufacturers will remain free to sell true monitors without a DTV tuner as long as they do not have NTSC tuners included (underline added), as many plasma displays and front projectors are sold today. Should the regulations remain in place, TV makers have the option of building sets with both digital and analog tuners or no tuner at all (underline added). The rules do allow companies to bundle an add-on digital tuner in a separate box, which would allow the sale of today's so-called DTV-ready sets."
The matter has been settled recently, the mandated OTA tuner integration is occurring. Additionally, cable tuners are to be included as follows.
On December 2002, an announcement was made of an agreement between the consumer-electronics and cable television industries regarding digital cable interoperability as follows:
"The agreement is part of a broad 'memorandum of understanding' between the two industries that is intended to lead to a 'plug-and-play' standard that was needed to link digital cable equipment and services with consumer electronics devices. Once the Federal Communications Commission approves the agreement, it is expected to help speed the adoption of HDTV.
The memorandum, along with a letter to FCC chairman Michael Powell, was signed by 12 consumer electronics companies and seven major cable multiple system operators (MSO) representing more than 75 percent of all cable subscribers. The memorandum is a package of voluntary commitments, specifications and proposals for rules covering digital television (DTV) cable hardware compatibility and content protection, and the FFC is expected to approve the recommendations."
The plan includes the phased-in use of two digital interface connectors on new digital cable-ready TVs and/or cable set-top converter boxes, including a) IEEE-1394 'FireWire/iLink' connections with Digital Transmission Content Protection (DTCP) for recordable and networkable compressed video streams, and b) the non-recordable DVI/HDMI with High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) connections on digital televisions and cable set-top boxes.
The agreement prohibited cable providers who supply STBs with both FireWire and DVI/HDMI connectors to switch the outputs in order to restrict lawful recording. The agreement also included encoding rules to copy freely, once or never depending on the content.
Consumers would buy TVs from a retailer, then receive a POD (Point of Deployment) authorizing card from their cable provider which would "unlock" specific cable programming services offered by the local system. The tuner should be plug-and-play compatible even if the TV moves to another location in the US.
The two groups agreed to launch a "test suite" for the unidirectional digital-cable products that will begin on Jan 31, 2003.
The proposed agreement originally specified that, by Dec 31, 2003, a cable company is expected to replace any leased HD-STB that does not include a 1394 interface with a box that has one, or to provide the software that would make such an interface functional, at no cost to the consumer. The approved agreement is now extended, more on it later.
The agreement was made for an integrated one-way only digital cable television tuner. Under this unidirectional agreement, bi-directional features such as video-on-demand (VOD), impulse-pay-per-view, return path of the cable system, and the use of the electronic program guide services provided by the Cable Operator would not be available, and a separate STB would be needed for those integrated TVs.
The two industries also agreed to work together on standards for future interactive, 'two-way' digital cable TV products. Samsung announced in January 2003 at the Las Vegas CES that it has become the first consumer electronics manufacturer to sign a license with Cable-Labs for a two-way interactive version of the POD.
By implementing this interactive version of POD, digital televisions would eventually be able to directly receive interactive digital programs without the need for a digital set-top-box from their local cable provider.
How this cable plan got approved in 2003
In August the FCC announced the updated progress in the establishment of the two-way interactive plug-and-play cable interoperability agreement. Under this two-way interoperability agreement, sets with interactive functionality will be labeled 'Interactive Digital Cable Ready.'
Digital TV sets capable of displaying one-way programming services, including premium channels, would be labeled 'Digital Cable Ready', and they require smart POD cards that will be supplied by cable TV operators to unlock scrambled channels. The POD cards are now called "CableCARDS."
In September the CEA announced that the FCC reached a decision on the plug-and-play cable agreement, as follows:
"Digital cable ready HDTV owners will be provided with a secure CableCARD to be inserted into the digital receiver in order to comply with varying degrees of content copy protection levels and prevent theft of cable service. For instance, at least one copy of a digital channel sold by monthly subscription (e.g. basic and HBO) may be made for private and personal use, whereas premium pay-per-view and video-on-demand programs may be marked as copy never (originally as copy once). Free over-the-air broadcast signals may be copied freely, and may not be reduced in resolution ("down-res'd") when output from unprotected high definition analog ports."
"Significantly, legacy DTV set owners also are protected by this agreement, which bans the use of "selectable-output-controls," which would have enabled content providers to control content delivery to households from the head end. Without the plug-and-play agreement's encoding rules, consumers who purchased introductory HDTV sets not equipped with copyprotection-designed digital outputs could be disenfranchised and altogether denied HDTV services and programming. This agreement ensures that today's DTV products will not be made obsolete in the course of a transformation to nationwide digital video delivery over cable. But selectable output controls may some day in the future be used." (underline added).
All digital-cable-ready TV sets are required to include over-the-air ATSC tuners. The satellite industry was not a party on this FCC decision and declared that it is not the end of the process.
Under the approved rules, and as agreed and mentioned before, HDTVs with unidirectional cable tuners would still need a set-top box for two-way services such as video on demand, some pay-per-view programming and customized electronic programming guides. Starting April 1, 2004, cable operators must supply, upon request, HD-STBs with functional 1394 "firewire" connectors. By July 1, 2005, all HD-STBs would also require a digital visual interface ("DVI") or a high definition multimedia interface ("HDMI").
Several manufacturers started to offer HDTV integrated versions with OTA/cable tuners on their 2003/4 lines. The integrated TV versions cost between $300-$1300 more than their monitor-only versions ($704 extra on average). The attached table and manufacturer specifications include a representative sample of lines and models.
The difference in price is justified by the cost tuner/s and related components, such as an MPEG-2 decoder so the digital signal can be uncompressed for the TV to display, 1394 outputs so the tuned compressed digital signal can be sent out for HD-recording, etc.
HD-STB tuners are still costing between $400 and $900 MSRP. The retail value of tuners is expected to drop eventually.
Back in 1999, first generation rear projection HDTVs cost consumers between $5,000 and $10,000, most 42" plasmas started in the $12,000 range; it was expensive for early adopters. HD-STB tuners were selling between $400 and $900 (although there were some extreme cases on the $3000 range). At that time, the MSRP relationship between a RPTV and an HD-STB was approximately 10 to 1 on average.
Today, similar rear projection HDTVs cost consumers approximately $1,000/$3,000, and the 42" plasmas are now in the $4,000 range, and they are better products (better line-doublers, lenses, digital inputs, video processors and scalers, etc.). The price of a new HD-STB today has not changed much, although one can still find some 1999 STB technologies at discounted prices. Today, the MSRP relationship between a RPTV and an HD-STB is approximately 3 to 1 on average.
In other words, the price of a HD-STB tuner today, relative to the reduced price of today's DTVs, should be much lower than it is. The same should apply to the price of tuners within integrated TVs, as it can be seen on the attached table.
Over the last 5 years tuners within HD-STBs did not have a record as clean as one could expect for the product to become a component of HDTVs, but they are certainly improving.
A tuner needing replacement or service might become a nuisance if integrated within a 300 pounds RPTV that most probably require and in-home service call/extra cost. Having the tuner as a separate HD-STB the problem could be solved as easily as just replacing/servicing just the STB; and if it would be a leased box the cable company should take care of the problem, which could facilitate upgrades to newer/better models. Leasing could be a good proposition during the period a technology needs to mature/evolve, like this one.
A cable-integrated HDTV owner that subscribes to premium cable services would be required to use a separate cable STB (unless the HDTV has an internal cable tuner with CableCARD, which are starting to come out on the last quarter of 2003). This subscriber would be paying for two tuners, one inside their new integrated HDTV for unscrambled services, and another into the external HD-STB for premium programming/interactive services (which also performs unscrambled tuning). If you are required to use a STB for your particular cable services anyway, you might want to consider an HD monitor rather than an integrated set.
DBS satellite service subscribers of HD programming have already purchased a satellite HD-STB that should have an ATSC OTA HD tuner circuitry included; they should not need the OTA tuner integrated into a HDTV, nor they need a cable tuner.
An over-the-air antenna TV viewer should just need an ATSC tuner (assuming the viewer already has good DTV terrestrial reception). An integrated HDTV with an ATSC OTA tuner could be an option; a $400 over-the air STB connected to an HDTV monitor could be another option, if you are offered the option.
Current D-VHS VCRs only record in HD using the IEEE1394 (Firewire connection) input. A tuner, any tuner, should have a 1394 output to send the tuned signal to the digital VCR's 1394 input for recording. DirecTV decided that their STBs would not have that output, DishNetwork has been announcing that is coming with such feature soon (for two years already, and maybe the model 921 is out with the 1394 output enabled by the time you read this), some new OTA STBs have that output.
An integrated HDTV (having a built-in OTA/cable tuner) should also have that output (the RCA Scenium 2003 integrated line 140 was released with a 1394 connection but is only "in", not outputting the tuned HD signal).
One feature not (yet) included in 2003/4 integrated HDTVs is an integrated time-shifting recording ability as the one found on some new HD-STBs with PVR hard disc drives, although those are on the $1000 range (such as the Zenith HDR-230 recently released). One recording alternative for integrated HDTVs having two-way 1394 connections is a PVR-only (no tuner) unit, such as the new DVR10 from Thompson/RCA ($450); the TV's 1394-out is for the internal HD tuner to send the signal out for recording; the 1394-in is to playback from the PVR.
What if you cannot buy an integrated HDTV by 2007?
Many consumers would eventually need an economy-level digital STB to convert DTV signals down to NTSC so they can still watch the new digital broadcast using their old analog TVs; they might not be able to afford retiring analog TVs that might still be in perfect conditions.
Many would have several analog tuners (TV, VCR, Tivo, etc.) on the house, and would then require several "low cost" down-conversion STBs. In order for that to happen the price of STBs needs to be reduced considerably. New OTA STB models can down-convert but are still in the range of $400.
People should be able to continue using their non-HD TVs for as long as their budget dictates, regardless of the DTV implementation schedule. With the cable agreement and OTA tuner mandate on could expect that a large mass of HD tuners would be produced, hopefully that would bring prices down as needed.
Verify the upgrade capabilities of cable tuner/s (and integrated HDTV)
Inform yourself to been able to anticipate how the future cable bi-directional features (that are still in the works by the industry) would eventually be applied to the integrated set you might want to buy in the 2003/4 period (with only unidirectional features, or with no CableCARD at all).
Otherwise, to been able to have the VOD, impulse PPV, and cable guide features of the bi-directional system, the cable subscriber might be facing a) the early replacement of the cable-integrated TV or HD-STB, or b) the addition of a bi-directional cable HD-STB (read as: pay for another tuner).
One Mitsubishi dealer indicated that Mitsubishi was committed to make their HDTVs future proof, and that included cable tuners. It is not clear what exactly that would mean, but reference was made to what Mitsubishi did with their "Promise Module" which provided earlier generation sets with 1394 digital connectivity and HD tuning capabilities. Their 2004 cable-integrated lines are not CableCARD suited.
According to the specific (underlined) wording of the "Promise", it seems that an upgrade path to CableCARD unidirectional or bi-directional might not actually be on their plans: "We will engineer and manufacture the upgrades necessary so the television you purchase today can be made compatible with near-future advances in digital television and digital interconnectivity. Specifically, we promise that you will be able to have your television upgraded, at a reasonable cost, to include an off-air HDTV tuner, a cable TV tuner (for unscrambled programming) ... (Underline added)",
However, while Mitsubishi might not satisfy all of the consumer-upgrade dreams to perfection, it is certainly a company that at least offers some comfort by announcing their upgrade plans in written and executing them the best they can for their customers. Most manufacturers of integrated sets/cable tuners are not committed to any future upgrade plan (we have seen this with DVI digital connectivity before).
For your convenience the following table shows a comparison of integrated TVs vs. monitors of 2003/4. Quoted prices are MSRP when the product was/will be introduced to the market. Quoted price differences are based on MSRP. Some HDTV sets introduced early in 2003 might now be publicly listed at reduced MSRPs (or further reduced as sale items on the street); although in some cases that situation is highlighted this report does not intend to do that consistently.
When comparing the differences of a given line/manufacturer with the current price of a separate HD-STB (as an alternative to integration), take into consideration that some new integrated TVs incorporate two tuners at once, OTA and cable, a feature that usually is not available in a separate cable-HD-STB (DirecTV and DishNetwork satellite STBs include OTA tuners). Some integrated TVs have only one RF input for DTV reception even when having two internal tuners, in such case a choice would need to made between OTA and Cable services for the use of the plug-and-play connection. Such limitation does not exist on satellite HD-STBs.
Cable ready sets suited with integrated basic cable tuners for unscrambled non-premium service, or with unidirectional CableCARD/POD tuners, might eventually disappoint uninformed buyers if bi-directional features could not be incorporated transparently to their sets.
Consumers that dislike STBs sitting on top of their TV monitors should find integration very appealing. Connectivity will be simpler for them.
Consumers that do not mind STBs might want to investigate lease options that might be offered by the cable company and rent a box until bi-directional features are implemented. Later, they might want to purchase a cable HD-STB or an integrated set with matured software, hardware, and bi-directional CableCARD features.
The ideas expressed above should not be interpreted as against integration but rather as an eye opener for 2003/4 potential buyers, since tuner prices might not come down significantly until after that period. Those buyers might also be misled at untrained stores with the plug-and-play appearance, believing that their new cable-integrated HDTV covers all the known cable-features.
Note: this table above and the following list are not intended to include all the manufacturers and lines. Prices are MSRP at product release time.
Detailed list of manufacturer/line/model/size
2003 Hitachi RPTVs
XWX Director's series integrated projectors
SWX monitors series
$1,300 difference for ATSC tuner and 1394
S500 Monitor RPTV series
S700 Integrated RPTV Series (without CableCARD)
T750 Integrated RPTV Series
2003 models CRT RPTVs:
84 new line Monitors
94 line Integrated
Difference between 84 and 94 lines for ATSC tuner with two-way 1394
Gold Series Monitors
Platinum Series Integrated RPTVs
Difference for ATSC/QAM cable (no CableCARD) unscrambled and 1394
Silver Plus Monitors
42" WT-42413 $1,900 ($2,100 press release), $1,800 street Sep 03
Gold Plus Integrated sets
48" WS-48613 $3,000 ($3,300 press release), 2,700 street
MSRP Difference for ATSC/QAM cable unscrambled and 1394
New Integrated CRT RPTVs
New RPTV CRT Monitors
TW - Line
Difference for ATSC/QAM, and DVI (monitors) vs. HDMI (integrated), specific POD and 1394 2-way capabilities were unavailable at the time of this report, integrated line compared with WX monitor line:
$700 in 47"
New Integrated models
Difference ATSC/cable tuners $500
Announced on Mar 03
New CRTs based Hi-Scan RPTV monitors
Difference for ATSC tuner $700 in the 3 models
2003 RPTVs RCA Scenium
RPTV Monitors w/DVD player (optional ATSC tuner)
New models announced June 03
RCA line Integrated
RCA line monitors
New models announced on June 03 (difference: ATSC/QAM tuners and 1394)
Theater Wide Fully integrated RPTV CRTs
Cinema Series Fully integrated RPTV CRTs
Theater Wide Monitors
Cinema Series Monitors
New Plasmas announced Sep 03, LG-branded panels
Fully integrated w/ATSC tuner (1394 information N/A)
Difference $1000 for the ATSC tuner
Posted by Rodolfo La Maestra, January 25, 2006 7:00 AM
About Rodolfo La Maestra
Rodolfo La Maestra is the Senior Technical Director of UHDTV Magazine and HDTV Magazine and participated in the HDTV vision since the late 1980's. In the late 1990's, he began tracking and reviewing HDTV consumer equipment, and authored the annual HDTV Technology Review report, tutorials, and educative articles for HDTV Magazine, DVDetc and HDTVetc magazines, Veritas et Visus Newsletter, Display Search, and served as technical consultant/editor for the "Reference Guide" and the "HDTV Glossary of Terms" for HDTVetc and HDTV Magazines. In 2004, he began recording a weekly HDTV technology program for MD Cable television, which by 2006 reached the rating of second most viewed.
Rodolfo's background encompasses Electronic Engineering, Computer Science, and Audio and Video Electronics, with over 4,700 hours of professional training, a BS in Computer and Information Systems, and thirty+ professional and post-graduate certifications, some from MIT, American, and George Washington Universities. Rodolfo was also Computer Science professor in five institutions between 1966-1973 in Argentina, regarding IBM, Burroughs, and Honeywell mainframe computers. After 38 years of computer systems career, Rodolfo retired in 2003 as Chief of Systems Development from the Inter-American Development Bank directing sixty+ software-development computer professionals, supporting member countries in north/central/south America.