FCC study turns DTV inside out

Apr 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

AFederal Communications Commission study, which found that the United States’ 8VSB digital TV system is working far better than indicated by
recent industry testing, is seriously flawed, broadcast industry sources charged last week.
One of the key findings in the FCC study says the FCC has succeeded in getting 8VSB DTV signals to indoor antennas at 85 percent of test sites in the Washington area.
That would appear to mark a vast improvement in the technology since the broadcast industry wrapped up its tests of the technology in the same area late last year. Then the broadcasters were unable to get 8VSB signals indoors much more than 30 percent of the time.
But in a major hitch, an FCC official told Electronic Media that the agency tested its indoor antennas outdoors, a factor that was at best ambiguous in the FCC’s report. The industry tested indoor antennas indoors, where industry officials said penetration through walls, roofs and siding makes reception more problematic-and realistic.
In another significant procedural difference, an FCC official said the agency moved its test truck up to 50 feet from targeted test sites to escape so-called “nulls”-areas where a DTV signal doesn’t penetrate. The industry, according to a source close to the tests, parked its truck at randomly selected test sites and tested regardless.
A source close to the industry tests-which were overseen by the National Association of Broadcasters and Association for Maximum Service Television-said the FCC’s procedures undermined its test’s scientific validity.
“Our testing involved a lot more sites, a lot more trucks and a very rigorous testing protocol,” the source said. “They [the FCC] moved around until they got a signal.”
Said Mark Hyman, vice president or corporate relations at Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has been a longtime critic of 8VSB: “If you’re not going to conduct honest tests, what’s the point?”
But Michael Petricone, vice president of technology policy for the Consumer Electronics Association, a major 8VSB booster, said the FCC’s tests proved what his organization has been saying all along. “With every generation, the performance increases and the costs go down,” he said. “This it typical of every consumer electronics product, and it’s true for DTV.”
In an interview last week, Bruce Franca, acting chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology, conceded that it is harder to get a TV signal indoors.
But Mr. Franca said the FCC stayed outdoors because it’s hard to persuade people to let you inside their homes for testing and there’s no standard for determining how to test inside.
He also said he didn’t believe that leaving the FCC truck in “nulls” would have “changed the results very much.”
“Lots of times we couldn’t move the truck very much because of fences or other obstructions or that was the only parking place,” said Mr. Franca, who said the agency is planning to continue its testing regimen.
Sinclair’s Mr. Hyman said, however, that moving the truck obviously undermined the FCC study. “The equivalent would be instead of putting the TV in your living room, you put it in your hall closet,” Mr. Hyman said.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell recently made clear that he doubts the industry’s findings.
“There are lots of allegations that parts of the [NAB/MSTV] test are flawed,” said Mr. Powell, explaining to reporters why he doesn’t believe the NAB study would justify a requirement that DTV sets be labeled to warn consumers the sets might not receive over-the-air signals.
“I do not believe that the tests conducted are sufficiently solid to compel that kind of warning, which would have a very detrimental effect, as we know, on the continued sales of televisions,” he added.
The FCC study, which was labeled an interim report, also said the agency found that 8VSB outperformed existing UHF analog (NTSC) service. Using a 30-foot outdoor antenna, the FCC said only 67 percent of sites received an acceptable NTSC signal, while 99 percent of the sites received an unimpaired DTV signal.
Using an indoor antenna on a 7-foot-tall tripod, the FCC said an acceptable NTSC picture was received at only 27 percent of sites, while 85 percent received an unimpaired DTV picture.