Hoping to jump-start the digital television era, the Federal Communications Commission voted in mid-August to mandate the installation of off-air DTV tuners in nearly all new television sets by 2007, a decision that rankled the Consumer Electronics Association.

As part of the FCC's five-year plan, the requirement will start with larger, more expensive televisions, a move designed to minimize the cost for equipment manufacturers and consumers. The FCC noted that prices of large TV sets have been declining at a clip of $100 to $800 per year, "so the additional cost of the DTV tuner may be partially or completely offset by the general price decline."

Under the FCC's phased-in mandate, all sets 13 inches and larger are required to have on-board off-air DTV tuners by July 2007, but half of all sets 36 inches and wider must comply with the ruling by July 2004. Moreover, all TV interface devices (VCRs, DVD players, etc.) must come equipped with DTV tuners by July 1, 2007.

As expected, National Association of Broadcasters President and CEO Edward O. Fritts applauded the vote, but noted, "cable carriage and other issues still need attention."

The CEA wasn't as pleased. CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro blasted the FCC order, calling it "a multi-million dollar annual TV tax on American consumers." He also said cable compatibility, not off-air tuners, will help accelerate the digital TV transition, noting that a mere 13 percent of American households rely on over-the-air TV signals.

In a related development, the FCC also said it is in the process of exploring whether the agency can and should mandate the use of copy protection measures for digital broadcast television via a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM).

The FCC added that "private industry negotiations" have spawned a technical "broadcast flag" standard that would limit copying of some programming aired by broadcast TV stations, but there is no universal agreement on the use and implementation of the flag. The agency said comments on that issue are due Oct. 30.