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Operational issues for digital have arrived

Wed, 04/30/1997 - 8:00pm
Wendell Bailey
i_wendell.GIF

The FCC rules under which this service is to be offered are rather strict. The broadcasters in the top-10 markets must begin providing a digital signal within two years, and there are different, but strict, timetables for those in the second and lower markets.

The NCTA has, for several years, had a consistent position on how, and under what circumstances this allotment would take place. Needless to say, the FCC did not adopt our stance, but that's not the issue that I want to discuss today.

The $64,000 question

A set of more practical issues for a cable television operating engineer to tackle begins with, "how, exactly, are we going to handle the transmission of the over-the-air signals that will begin to arrive at our headends in the immediate future?"

So many people have called to ask me this question in the past few weeks that, by now, everyone must know my answer: I don't have a clue! It's not just that we have lost the must-carry case (Supreme Court, 5-4 in favor of must-carry), or that the FCC has yet to speak to the issue of whether or not these new digital signals should enjoy must-carry status. No, these are issues that will be worked out eventually, and at that time, we will find that, whichever way it goes, we'll have our options and responses changed by the decision that the FCC makes. The operational issues that will confront us in the next two years are much more prosaic.

If a broadcaster can compress his/her signals at a 5-to-1 ratio on a single, 6 MHz slot, and the cable operator is to use "statistical multiplexing" to achieve a 15-to-1 compression ratio, does this mean that we would have to give up 10 potential channel slots in order to carry one of the new broadcast channels? In the digital world, is it even fair or proper to speak of a television channel as a 6 MHz slot? What about the case where we have come to terms with the carriage issue and are face-to-face with the issue of delivery we carry the digital broadcast signal to our customer, and he/she only has an analog TV set.

Several questions arise: have we "delivered" the signal? Do we care if the subscriber can see it (it might be a great program)? If we put a digital set-top in the subscriber's home to receive our own digital offerings (64 QAM), will that unit be able to handle the modulation method that the broadcaster uses (8 VSB)? How about if the FCC requires must-carry and does not allow the cable operator to re-modulate the digital signal of the broadcaster, and you (the operator) are sending QAM signals to a subscriber who has a new VSB TV set? Then there is the issue of "re-packing": taking the four or five SDTV (Standard Digital Television) signals that the broadcaster sends out and fitting them into the 12–18 signals that an operator might be able to generate using a stat mux system. See? It gets complicated very quickly.

Chomping at the bit

It seems that we need to have a matrix drawn up just so we can see what we must do once digital signals begin to proliferate. And proliferate they will. The FCC order will no doubt be challenged by someone as too much too soon, but there are stations out there that are anxious to get going with digital signals. There are even a few who are intending to be on-the-air with true digital high definition signals in the mandated timeframe.

This creates another problem for us to fit into a matrix of issues. How do we handle a situation where the broadcaster sends out a high definition signal for a part of the broadcast day, and switches to a group of five SDTV signals for the rest of the day? Does this mean that we in the cable world have to rearrange our channels once or twice a day?

Real, live digital

In the land of cable television, there are already several places where digital signals in groups of six or eight per 6 MHz are being delivered to real, live cable subscribers. The word is that they like what they see. While we have several new services to offer our subscribers, some part of our efforts must be devoted to dealing with the issues above.

Broadcasters have proven that they know how to deliver programs that attract a large number of eyeballs. True, the cable programmers have shown (lately) that they can compete head-to-head for the same viewer and win a fair share of the ratings, but it would be foolish to ignore the track record of the programming that comes to us from the over-the-air source.

Surely there will be offerings in the broadcasters' digital emissions that will appeal to a large portion of our customer base. We will have to find a way to get the signals to them. At the same time, we must run our own digital channels in such a way that we can offer the services that our program community will develop, and that our subscribers will surely want to see.

Once again, the people on the frontline have their work cut out for them.

Contact Wendell Bailey at: wbailey@prodigy.com

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