By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
James Tiernan is a pioneer of HD, and though he has moved on to other research and development and his former company, Tiernan Communications, is now a part of Radyne Corp., he remains opinionated on the subject of high-definition television and the state of digital technology. In his characteristic candid style, he insists that “HD is an incremental step, it’s not a revolution.”
In the 1990s, Mr. Tiernan developed a transport and protocol structure that was adopted for MPEG-2, which, in turn, provides the underlying structure used in the digital cable standard DOCSIS and in the HDTV standard. His high-performance encoder systems still support broadcast and distribution applications for an international list of customers.
Mr. Tiernan sells to the companies that in turn sell to the consumers, and he muses that he then becomes a consumer himself. A man of technology and science, he’s looking way down the road, he says, and the parade isn’t moving fast enough for him.
“The whole country will be HD eventually,” Mr. Tiernan said. “Why not just do it? HD can be much cheaper than it is now. The whole world ought to just go HDTV and get on with it.”
“I’m actually not totally unhappy with how HD has been introduced to the consumer in terms of the technology,” Mr. Tiernan added. “But the cost-I went out and bought the damn set, spent the money. But it’s too much. You’re paying for the manufacturing, the overhead and the research and development for the next generation of sets and a whole lot more. They say they’re protecting their workers and their industry. Come on, guys, make HD cathode-ray tubes and make ’em cheap. HD should not be expensive until you get to a certain size of the screen.
“And when you buy the 1080p it’s superb quality, spectacularly high quality. Yet it’s probably more than you’ll ever need.
“But you can be dazzled by the quality, no question. Looking at sports, you can see the expression on the player’s face.”
As Mr. Tiernan sees it, HD as it is currently used in the industry and sold to the consumer “is the typical human solution: It sort of works, and it’s sort of messy. With all this HD, we’re still there. We’re still in the same place we were with analog, sending every frame of the picture. That’s not necessary. You don’t have to resend every frame.”
Instead, Mr. Tiernan contends that the technology exists to send each frame just once and encode through the objects instead of through the frames. “You can send the frame once and send instructions on how to move it,” he said. “Like animation, but a real person instead of something created. That would create an even more sharp image-and that 3-D imaging is the future, though it may be 100 years before it’s entirely the way `broadcasting’ is done.”
Mr. Tiernan comes out of the research “labs” of both industry and academia as a former member of the technical staff at MIT with a doctorate from the University of California at San Diego. Before joining MIT, he was at LINKABIT Corp., a military satellite communications contractor now part of Qualcomm. Previously Mr. Tiernan headed a research team at the Navy Electronics Laboratory focusing on radar, communications and network research.
Moving into the private sector in the 1980s, he was employed by General Instrument, which later became his chief competitor. He worked with clients such as Major League Baseball and ran the development program for Videocipher I TV satellite processing equipment, which is still in use. He also worked with programmers in Europe to gain acceptance of General Instrument’s satellite encryption technology.
He then went out on his own to develop a method of digital delivery.
Mr. Tiernan and his company got their “big break” in the midst of a high-profile television event. In 1995, CBS was interested in his digital broadcast delivery and, as a test, was running the system over a satellite parallel to the network’s regular analog feed during the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
On the day of the verdict in the trial-in which Mr. Simpson was acquitted of killing his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman-CBS lost its regular feed about an hour before the jury returned to the courtroom.
“So they ran our picture because they needed something then and there,” Mr. Tiernan recalled. “When the verdict was read, the entire nation was watching along with every executive in the company. And they got all sorts of compliments from the executives that it was the best picture they’d sent out in quite a while.
“We were in business.”
The next year CBS bought equipment from Tiernan Communications for use in covering the Republican National Convention, which was held in San Diego, not far from Tiernan’s headquarters. Digital equipment with the Tiernan name had also been used to beam out the first reports from Chechnya when that region broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, when European broadcasters were experimenting with digital.
When Mr. Tiernan was ready to unveil HDTV, the networks were familiar with his company and were receptive to the idea. ABC and NBC became customers, using his equipment to transmit to their affiliates. CBS, on the other hand, made its first HDTV deal with Mr. Tiernan’s rival and former employer, General Instrument.
Mr. Tiernan now has his own shop again, La Jolla Networks, based in Solana Beach, Calif., which he started in 2000. He plans to provide inexpensive wireless, broadband, two-way connection with the home using a technology called WiBUS (Wireless Broadband UHF System).
WiBUS, which will soon be in use in Buenos Aires, Argentina, uses UHF channels for digital delivery of TV, the Internet, telephone and interactive. Mr. Tiernan contends it is 10 times faster and less costly than any of the current consumer delivery methods.
“I’m doing the next revolution,” he said. “I’m going to put broadband into UHF, put that into the mix.”
Although it is a for-profit endeavor, part of the mission of La Jolla Networks is to distribute worldwide the technology that Mr. Tiernan says is now taken for granted in industrialized countries. The company’s promotional materials contend that 84 percent of the people of the world still do not have access to the Internet.
Exploring New Initiatives
The reason for the lack of broader distribution, Mr. Tiernan said, is the cost of cable, fiber and copper line extensions. La Jolla Networks is banking that the future of broadband expansion lies in finding the path to reach the consumers without huge infrastructure investment.
“Just put the bits into the stream, send ’em down the pipe,” he said. “You have to stop thinking of UHF as broadcast and start thinking of it as a space you can jam bits through.”
Just as he’s still rankled at the amount he paid for his HD-ready TV set, so Mr. Tiernan would like to see the consumer be liberated from “$50 to $100 and larger bills for monthly service. Let’s strip it down. Think of it a little like the iPod. It can deliver music, and if you want, it can do much more.”
“I guess this is a revolution we’re doing very quietly,” he added. “I’m not one to go out speaking about things. I know people I grew up with in this industry who just naturally can do the rubber chicken dinner circuit. That’s not me.”
Busy exploring new initiatives, Mr. Tiernan admitted he pays far less attention these days to the progress of HD. But he still has strong opinions on the subject.
“HD has a long way to go before it reaches its potential,” Mr. Tiernan said. “But in the future we are going to be less and less tied to the method of delivery. And, boy oh boy, that’s going to be a big shock to advertisers-and they’ve had quite a lot of shocks already, haven’t they?”