Watchdogs unhappy with DTV standard

Feb 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The watchdog Center for Media Education last week urged federal policymakers to investigate the technical standard adopted for digital television in the United States.
Recent field tests sponsored by the broadcast industry showed that the standard is incapable of getting signals to indoor antennas at much more than 30 percent of test sites-a performance that even the standard’s boosters concede is dismal.
The National Association of Broadcasters and Association for Maximum Service Television, however, announced last month that they believe their best bet would be to try to fix the 8VSB standard, not consider alternatives.
But at least some watchdog group representatives are expressing concern that the industry’s plan could wind up sticking consumers with defective TV sets for years, even if a fix is eventually realized.
“This is part of the biggest rip-off in American history,” said Jeff Chester, CME executive director.
“They [the industry] have embraced a flawed technical standard, which will leave consumers without reliable service. Congress and the Federal Communications Commission need to reconsider the whole DTV broadcasting scheme.”
In an interview last week, Greg Schmidt, MSTV interim co-president, agreed that the standard raises a major consumer issue. That is, absent a fix, it could effectively kill free TV, requiring consumers to use pay services such as cable and satellite television to get digital broadcast signals.
“Long term, I don’t think it makes any sense for anybody to assume we’re going to reach consumers only through cable or satellite,” Mr. Schmidt said.
The Senate Commerce Committee set DTV hearings for March 1. But at deadline, a committee spokeswoman said the focus for the hearings had yet to be determined.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee has also announced tentative plans for March 15 hearings on DTV’s rollout.
But at deadline, it was unclear precisely what issues that panel would address.
Ken Johnson, a committee spokesman, said lawmakers have been assured that 8VSB’s performance can be improved.
“We have no reason to doubt that,” Mr. Johnson said. “But let me make one thing perfectly clear: We’re not going to leave people behind in the migration to digital.”
MSTV’s Mr. Schmidt said the industry hopes to make clear that its fate is in the hands of lawmakers.
“They don’t want to be known as the Congress that killed broadcasting,” he said.
Mr. Schmidt also said at least part of the ATSC/8VSB standard’s shortcomings could be attributed to the fact that it was originally designed to reach 30-foot outdoor antennas, devices that few consumers have or would be tolerate today.
Until the industry completed its recent field testing, Mr. Schmidt said few people “understood just how fragile the system is and how difficult this transition is going to be.”
Sinclair Broadcast Group has argued that it would be better to amend the U.S. standard now to include DVB/T-COFDM, a DTV transmission system used in other countries. With the alternative technology in place in new TV sets, Sinclair points out that the United States could have viable fallback if the industry ultimately decides several years from now that 8VSB is incapable of a fix.
“We think it’s prudent to develop a safety net,” said Mark Hyman, Sinclair vice president, corporate relations.
The NAB and MSTV boards rejected a proposal to include COFDM in the U.S. DTV standard last month, after the field tests showed that it was about as bad as 8VSB. Sinclair alleged that the test was unfair because the COFDM receiver used wasn’t configured for over-the-air broadcasting in the United States.
But even if that were the case, MSTV’s Mr. Schmidt said NAB and MSTV board members felt COFDM wouldn’t have been good enough to warrant what he said could be up to four years of delay to get a revised standard adopted.
Sinclair’s Mr. Hyman, however, said a COFDM standard-DVBT/COFDM-already exists. “Adopting a standard that already exists would only take months, not years,” Mr. Hyman said.
Consumer electronics manufacturers have argued against revising the standard in part on cost grounds, even though the actual expense has been estimated at less than $5 per set.
But according to Jeff Joseph, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, design, development and opportunity costs are also a factor.
“It’s not just as simple as flipping off the light switch,” Mr. Joseph said.
Mr. Johnson said one issue the House DTV hearings will consider is the problems that smaller-market stations are having meeting the 2002 DTV conversion deadline.
“For many stations in America, there simply isn’t a business plan that works for digital,” he said.