Heavy Static over Digital-TV Standards
Sinclair's Nat Ostroff tells why the U.S. should revamp its approach
Last fall, Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to revise the U.S. standard for digital television broadcasting. In Sinclair's own field tests, America's method of transmitting digital images over the airwaves performed poorly, compared with a technical approach adopted in many other countries. While the FCC mulls Sinclair's petition, Senior Writer Neil Gross caught up with Nat Ostroff, Sinclair's vice-president for new technology and chief evangelist of a better American DTV standard:Q: What is the status of your petition with the FCC?A: Four hundred TV stations have signed the petition. But nothing has happened with it. The FCC is in a quandary about how to act. I hear that they will begin their own testing this month, using the kinds of methods we used.Q: What's wrong with the U.S. transmission standard?A: With the approach adopted by America's Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), all the data are placed on a single radio-frequency signal. In a city, consumers can only make it work by using large outdoor antennas, which must rotate to find the signal being bounced off surrounding buildings. What if you have signals from four stations in four locations, or even just two stations? You can't watch one show and tape-record another unless you have two or more antennas. Forget about picture-in-picture. Forget about having several TV sets in the home, tuned to different channels.Q: What's the alternative approach that other countries have adopted, and is it really better?A: It's called DVB-T, for digital video broadcast, terrestrial. It uses thousands of signals, each carrying a small fraction of the total broadcast data. If you lose some of the signals, there's still enough information to re-create the whole picture, thus permitting reception by simple, portable antennas. This approach is fast becoming the de facto international standard.Q: Is this dispute over standards simply about watching pretty pictures in the living room?A: No. It's about mobile and portable video communications. With the DVB-T approach, broadcasters can send digital TV to small, portable receivers, or to screens in the backseats of automobiles. Broadcasters would see multiple revenue streams. We could talk to Palm VII devices, cell phones, and a whole generation of appliances, and deliver 10 megabits per second of data.Q: A TV company would want to be in that business?A: Absolutely. But we can't do that with the ATSC standard. With the DVB-T approach, on the other hand, Nokia has shown a media screen that is a cell phone, television receiver, and computer--all built into something you carry under your arm.Q: Have any independent organizations corroborated your point of view?A: The Defense Dept. has done its own independent research and concluded that the ATSC standard is not capable of delivering video to portable devices. Providing that, according to DOD, may be essential to national security, in the event of an emergency.Q: People say that your petition is designed to delay the advent of digital television, so you can avoid heavy investment in HDTV equipment. How do you respond?A: That's absolutely absurd. I want American broadcasters--and Sinclair in particular--to have every option to compete in the emerging market for broadband, high-speed, digital wireless services. Otherwise, broadcasting gets relegated to a single-revenue business--running quiz shows and showing spots.Q: Critics also say that to raise these standards issues now will cause confusion in the marketplace and delay the rollout of digital TV.A: If there's a fundamental flaw in the service, then concerns about delays are misplaced. For the service to succeed, we must fix the flaws.Q: Does this mean America should scrap the current digital standard and send TV makers back to the drawing board?A: Not at all. Our proposal is simply to augment the standard. Digital-TV receivers today can already handle multiple standards. Thomson's new devices receive signals for analog TV, HDTV, satellite, and cable. It doesn't require much to add one more standard. Remember, most digital TVs sold so far don't even have built-in digital receivers. The cost of retrofitting won't be great.Q: How does your position sit with the Consumer Electronics Assn., which defends the ATSC standard and represents the HDTV-set makers?A: The CEA admits that the ATSC system is not designed for mobile or portable services. They say that this isn't an important part of the U.S. broadcast industry. But that's rather presumptuous, almost arrogant.Q: Where does all this confusion leave HDTV?A: The whole HDTV train ran out of steam a long time ago. It's just a question of waiting for the rust to take over.Q: Will the standards battle have any impact on the FCC's spectrum auction this spring?A: The folks who want to bid on that spectrum have to realize that unless digital TV is a success, they may never get the use of that spectrum. We're talking about a piece of the spectrum--TV channels 60 to 69--that broadcasters are supposed to give back once 86% of households in their markets can receive digital TV. But if digital TV fails, that spectrum can't be vacated.