HDTV's Digital Disconnect

Piracy safeguards make the switch to digital TV far too complex


Cleaning up the rat's nest of cables linking my high-definition TV to various video devices seemed like a good idea. Instead of three analog video cables that connected my cable box to the display, I could have just one digital cord. Little did I know that going digital, which everyone will eventually have to do, would block my ability to see HD programming.

The problem stems from restrictive antipiracy measures imposed by companies that own the content. At best, the transition to HDTV was going to be confusing for consumers. But the piracy safeguards embedded in the hardware make it much more complicated.

Here's how it all played out in my living room. There's a cord called a Digital Video Interface cable that I tried to use to hook up the Motorola set-top box supplied by Comcast to my Sharp AQUOS TV. As soon as I plugged the cable in, a message on the screen announced that my cable had "failed HDCP authentication" and that the box was reducing the picture resolution to 480i. That's digital TV-speak for standard TV. Like a prince turning into a frog, the picture degraded and shrank into an unsightly rectangle in the center of my big screen.

I had some idea of what had happened. Content owners insist that any transmission of digital programming between devices in the home must be over a secure link, so that you can't intercept the content and make a copy. Specifically, they require the use of an Intel (INTC )-developed encryption method called High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, or HDCP.

THE CONNECTION I USED met the content protection requirements of both the set-top box and the TV. Unfortunately, the Motorola box and the Sharp TV were unable to talk to each other to establish a secure connection. So the set-top box sensed that it was hooked up to an unprotected digital connection and downgraded its output to standard definition. Having been through this kind of thing before, I knew how to reconfigure the set-top box to go back properly to the analog connection, saving me the pain of a Comcast tech-support call.

This situation is unconscionably complex even for the most tech-savvy consumer. There are two types of digital cable that can be used for secure connections, the DVI cable that I used and a new type of cord called High Definition Multimedia Interface. HDMI connectors are nearly 100% certain to comply with the copy protection standard, but they are still fairly rare; my display has one, but nothing else I own does. DVI connectors are much more common but less likely to be compliant. And some HD displays, especially older ones, lack any compliant digital input. That's why most people hook up their digital systems with analog cables.

But that solution may not work indefinitely. Hollywood wants to force the use of digital cables so that studios can enforce copy-protection schemes. And they may use the advent of high-definition DVDs to press their case. Later this year two high-def DVD formats will arrive: Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Content owners can include codes that will downgrade the image you see to something well short of true high-def if you try to use analog cables.

There's one glimmer of hope for consumers. Silicon Image, a company that helped develop the HDMI standard, has set up a subsidiary called Simplay to test compatibility. Its system should be in place by the time high-def DVDs are available. Then you'll know that a DVD player will work with an HDTV set as long as both bear the Simplay logo.

Simplay should be a big step forward. But for HDTV to succeed in the mass market, content owners, service providers, and equipment makers need to impose a sanity check on content protection. If preventing piracy trumps all other considerations and makes it too hard for people to use these expensive new systems, the market will never reach its potential.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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