News | June 16, 1999

AT&T/NBC Alliance Could Speed up Progress on Cable/DTV Incompatibility

By: Tom Butts

Last week's announcement from AT&T (New York) that it will carry NBC's cable and digital broadcast programming, including HDTV programs, is the most significant development yet for HDTV in the US and could accelerate progress towards solving one of the most vexing problems for DTV—incompatibility between DTV sets and cable.

The agreement calls for AT&T to carry the standard definition digital signal as well as the 1080i HD signal of New York-based NBC's 13 owned and operated stations through 2008. A separate deal calls for AT&T—now the largest cable operator in the US—to guarantee cable carriage of NBC's Olympic programming and its cable networks, CNBC, and MSNBC.

The deal, which follows a similar agreement in December between Time Warner (New York) and CBS's owned affiliates, illustrates the major television networks' continuing efforts to find a marketplace answer to the digital must-carry dilemma. The FCC is in the process of deciding whether to require US cable operators to carry standard and high-definition signals from US broadcasters, in addition to their current analog signal.

It also could provide a significant push towards solving the interconnectivity problem between current HDTV sets on the market and cable set-top boxes. Currently, there is no standard for connection between DTV sets and cable boxes and the FCC has given the broadcast, cable, and manufacturing industries until July 1 to develop a timetable for resolving the problem.

AT&T and NBC were vague on the technical details agreement, but the agreement did indicate that the signal will only be available on those AT&T digital cable services that have been upgraded to 750 MHz. General Instrument (Horsham, PA) will supply its DCT-5000 digital set-top boxes to cable customers using current analog sets, according to a company source.