Washington Dissatisfied with the speed at which television is going digital, the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to require television manufacturers to include digital tuners on all new sets by July 2007.
The requirement marks a significant step toward Congress' long-term goal of making high-definition TV, with its sharper images and better sound, standard viewing in American living rooms.
Commissioners voted 3-1 to require makers to include the tuners on all big-screen TVs 36 inches and larger by July 2004, while the requirement for smaller sets would be phased in during the following three years. A group of manufacturers said they would appeal.
"This action will take these electronic appliances from being HDTV ready to HDTV reality," said Michael Powell, the commission's chairman.
Powell rejected industry complaints that the action would force consumers to pay as much as $250 more for a television set, saying the price of digital tuners would drop quickly as they are mass produced.
The dissenting vote came from Commissioner Kevin Martin, who noted that most TV viewers no longer receive their signals over the air, instead receiving cable or satellite television, and therefore don't need the digital tuners.
"I believe the cost of this particular proposal outweighs the benefits," Martin said.
After the meeting, Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Assn., said only about 10 percent of American households receive their programming over the airwaves. The association calls the requirement a "TV tax" and says it would cost the industry and consumers about $7 billion.
"We believe the government should not tell consumers what to buy," Shapiro said. "We are going to court to oppose this."
Edward O. Fritts, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Broadcasters, praised the ruling.
"The networks are moving very rapidly toward more and more schedules of digital programming," Fritts said. "Broadcasters are doing our part. The TV manufacturers will now be doing their part."
Receiving digital TV doesn't necessarily mean seeing the lifelike HDTV picture, which requires not just a tuner but also a more expensive television set. And broadcasts of digital programming aren't necessarily high definition, either.
Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, predicted the new rule would cost consumers without leading to widespread use of high-definition TV.
"It's so easy to whack it to the consumer when the other two pieces of the industry, cable and broadcasters, aren't doing their part," Cooper said.
Transition from analog to digital technology has been delayed by reluctance within all parts of the industry to make the switch before most households can receive digital signals. The switchover requires expensive changes by broadcasters, cable companies, and local TV stations, as well as the manufacturers.
Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said the TV set requirement was necessary to move the switch to digital TV forward. Without the rule, "the transition remains stalled," she said. "There's no question in my mind."