HDTV Forecast: More Delays Ahead

Locally broadcast high-definition television won't be coming to a home theater near you anytime soon. That's the consensus of participants and observers at congressional hearings on the subject in late July, when long-simmering disagreement over a technical standard for terrestrial transmission finally got its day in court.

At issue before the House Telecommunications Subcommittee: the quality of indoor reception of DTV signals using a simple rabbit-ear antenna. For several days, congressmen heard arguments pro and con regarding the "8-level Vestigial Side Band" (8VSB) modulation scheme adopted by the Advanced Television Standards Committee and written into the technical specifications for DTV by the Federal Communications Commission. The 8VSB standard has been roundly criticized by an industry group led by Sinclair Broadcasting, which claims that 8VSB is prone to interference and multipath problems and signal attenuation caused by buildings and other obstacles, and that mobile reception of the signals is spotty at best. The European standard, known as COFDM, is claimed by Sinclair and its supporters as being better in every respect.

In demonstrations of the competing technologies, the 8VSB contingent was forced to position its antenna near an open window to ensure adequate signal strength for a clear, consistent display. (Unlike traditional television, where weak signals result in weak pictures, DTV images disappear entirely when signal strength drops below a specified threshold, causing the screen to go blue.) They also had to re-orient the antenna when changing stations. The COFDM contingent apparently put on a much more convincing demonstration, with the antenna placed well within the room and with no need to change its position.

In typical Washington fashion, both sides declared victory. "The transmission standard debate is over," said Larry Sidman, attorney for 8VSB proponent NxtWave. "We proved conclusively that 8VSB is satisfactory for indoor reception." Ken Crane's Home Entertainment City corporate director Tom Campbell said, "I'm tired of seeing the consumer bombarded by statements from Sinclair that we have a television system that doesn't work. It does work."

Despite the crowing, subcommittee chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA) agreed with the critics and offered engineers an unspecified amount of time to fix the problems with 8VSB. "The 8VSB guys are telling us they're going to be able to resolve the interference problems," said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. Tauzin. "It's important that they do that. The clock is ticking. We need a standard where people don't need to move their antennas from room to room and then rub a rabbit's foot." Fixing the transmission technique rather than scrapping it altogether is reportedly preferred by the FCC, said to be reluctant to rewrite the standard and set back the rollout of HDTV even further, possibly for years.

A repair instead of a replacement is certainly preferred by the members of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), who have a substantial investment in products designed to receive 8VSB. But even they are hedging their bets by building HDTV displays requiring separate tuners, rather than incorporating the tuners within the sets. This strategy prevents the obsolescence of receivers costing many thousands of dollars.

In the chicken-or-egg debate over which should come first, the programming or the receivers in consumers' homes, the National Association of Broadcasters has proposed a novel solution: that all future television sets be equipped to receive both DTV and traditional signals, aka "legacy video," thereby easing the market through the transition. A spokesman for Thomson Consumer Electronics reacted strongly to the proposal, saying it "stands in opposition to the most fundamental reason why Congress established a DTV transition at all, which was to give consumers sufficient time to purchase, at steadily declining prices, the necessary equipment to receive DTV services."

Others have suggested that transmission techniques might be better implemented on a local level, with consumers purchasing equipment specifically designed for a particular geographic area. Tauzin completely dismissed this concept. "No one should have to buy a specific kind of set for a specific location of the country they are living in," he said. "Consumers should be able to move around the country and get the same reception quality on the same set."

He also came down hard on broadcasters who have discussed selling or leasing some of their 6MHz of the radio-frequency spectrum that they were given by the FCC to use for HDTV transmission. Any use other than HDTV would be "a deal breaker," Tauzin said. "That 6MHz was supposed to be used for television, including HDTV," he declared. Ken Johnson clarified Tauzin's position by stating that broadcasters who transmitted multiple channels of so-called "standard-definition TV" and data services during the day and HDTV in the evenings were probably "on safe ground."

CEA president Gary Shapiro said that Tauzin had "echoed" his organization's sentiments "exactly." The CEA would like to see an end to the wrangling over technical standards so that manufacturers and retailers can get on with the business of selling equipment. Sales hinge on available programming, according to Shapiro, who praised Tauzin for warning broadcasters that they risk losing their free spectrum if they don't deliver on their end of the deal. With satellite services and some cable operators moving into the HDTV market, it's conceivable that local broadcasters could get left out of the HDTV picture completely if they continue stalling. The only clear conclusion to emerge from the congressional hearings is that the FCC will have to revise its target date of 2006 for completing the transition from analog to digital television.