WASHINGTON (AP) -- Regulators adopted rules Wednesday to make cable television and new television sets more compatible, with the goal of promoting the rollout of digital and high-definition televisions.
The Federal Communications Commission voted 5-0 to approve the new technical and labeling standards, which seek to allow digital cable signals to flow seamlessly into TV sets without the need for a set-top box. Companies want high-definition sets with this "plug-and-play" technology available next year.
To watch cable on a plug-and-play TV, consumers would insert into the set a security card provided by their cable service.
"This is a great result for consumers," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said at the commission's monthly meeting. "Consumers who want digital television sets will have an easier time connecting them to their cable service and having them work with high-definition and other digital programming."
The cable and electronics industries agreed in December to make their equipment work together. The plan needed federal approval.
"The FCC action could be an important tipping point in the U.S. transition to digital television," the Consumer Electronics Association said in a statement.
Unlike traditional analogue television, digital TV signals use the on-and-off language of computers, which allows for sharper pictures and potential features, including Internet access, video games and multiple programs on one channel. Digital signals can be sent with satellites, by cable or as over-the-air broadcasts.
High-definition television, or HDTV, is another feature made possible by digital TV. Sets designed for HDTV signals offer more lifelike pictures and sound. HDTV sets cost from about $800 to many thousands of dollars, but prices are dropping.
Cable providers now offer high-definition service to 60 million U.S. households, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said.
Uncertainty over whether various digital devices would be compatible has made it confusing for consumers considering buying an HDTV set.
Under the rules approved Wednesday, consumers would still need set-top boxes to use two-way services such as video on demand, some pay-per-view programming and customized electronic programming guides. Cable and electronics companies are working on an agreement to simplify two-way services.
Digital tuners, either inside a TV or a set-top box, will be needed to receive broadcasts over the airwaves after the nation switches from analogue to digital signals. Congress has set a goal of December 2006 for the switch over.
Separately, the FCC began reviews of policies governing wireless services in rural areas and pricing rules involving the leasing of telephone networks.