Digital broadcasting cram down?

Thu, 09/30/1999 - 8:00pm
Walter S. Ciciora
By Walter S. Ciciora, Digital television is evolving in a manner which fails its original purpose.

Things that evolve over more than a decade tend to end up in ways not originally envisioned. When powerful special interest groups get involved, the ultimate outcome can become warped and not in the best interest of the public. It appears that this is happening with broadcast digital television.

Let's begin the discussion by listing the stakeholders. They include citizens, consumers, broadcasters, cable operators, consumer electronics equipment manufacturers, broadcast equipment manufacturers, other users of the radio spectrum, politicians, the Federal Treasury, and those who have invested years of their life in this. (We can't cover all of this in just one column.)

I have separated out citizen stakeholders from consumers because the citizenry in general has a need for news, information and entertainment from a variety of sources. Diversity of opinion and free speech are fundamentals upon which this country and modern society are built. Analog television serves that purpose extremely well. Digital television has decades to go before it even comes close to serving those needs. The well off consumer may be excited about the purchase of new television receivers, but those who cannot afford these expensive new purchases must not be forsaken in the crass pursuit of product sales. For quite some time, they will be the majority, and the consumers of digital broadcast television receivers will be the minority. The citizenry must continue to have access to news, information and entertainment, unencumbered by the costs of new equipment, if the needs of a free society are not to be abused.

It was just a short few years ago that politicians and the Federal Treasury were concerned about budget deficits and the national debt. Some politician suggested that we could auction off major parts of the television spectrum if the analog signals were eliminated and digital signals substituted. Digital signals would allow denser packing and not require the majority of channels to be empty. There are at least three things terribly wrong with this premise.

First, supposedly, we no longer have a deficit. Second, denser packing of television signals can be done with analog signals (We do it on cable all the time!). This would require higher quality television tuners, probably double conversion tuners like those we use in cable. Some might say that this would be too expensive and take too long. But the fact is that we are going down the same path with the introduction of digital broadcast television, but with much heavier costs and longer delays. In the digital approach, we can't take back the analog spectrum until the analog sets are replaced with expensive digital sets. The massive failure in logic here is that it would take less time to replace the current analog sets with analog sets that have better quality tuners-and it would be a lot cheaper! Some of the current receivers would provide acceptable performance for a long time to come and would not have to be replaced. Less expensive set-top adapters-probably less than $75- (rather than several thousand dollar digital televisions or nearly a thousand dollar digital set-top adapters) would take care of those remaining analog receivers which have problems. Some (not all) of the citizens who could not afford a new analog television set or a new set-top adapter with a quality tuner would still not be deprived of television. They might see a modest picture quality loss, but not a loss of the entire signal, as would be the case with the digital broadcasting scheme.

Note that higher quality tuners are required by digital television receivers. Very similar tuners would make it possible to pack analog signals more tightly and free up much of the same spectrum. The currently empty channels could have other uses phased in over time-less time than would be needed to phase out all the analog receivers. These other uses include additional communication services and premium digital television for the consumers who can afford and want it. The third thing terribly wrong with the current digital broadcast approach is that it is a monstrous hidden tax scheme. The Federal government will gain revenues from the sale of spectrum, and citizens will have costs imposed on them by the need to purchase new digital receivers and abandon working analog receivers. While this won't appear on anyone's 1040 tax forms, it will still result in funds out of citizens' pockets and funds into the Treasury for politicians to spend at will. That's a pretty good approximation to a tax, as far as I can see.

Digital television is evolving in a manner which fails its original purpose. Digital television is result of the search for a High Definition Television (HDTV) system. All of the original HDTV proposals were analog. None envisioned putting multiple television programs into the same 6 MHz currently occupied by one analog signal. Only HDTV justifies such a massive upheaval of the television landscape. But HDTV is, by definition, for the high-end minority of the market. An HDTV receiver must be viewed from about one to two times its picture height, or it looks just like an analog NTSC picture. Because consumers are not likely to move their couches to within a few feet of the television, the alternative is that the screen must be large. This gives rise to the "media room," with its large screen and surround sound. For such an installation, an external antenna is not unreasonable. It is a minor cost compared to the total.

But everything changes when the goal is multiple Standard Definition Television (SDTV) signals in each 6 MHz. In that situation, the new digital set is substituting for the existing analog television set. While it may provide more programming, lower noise and fewer ghosts, all of those benefits already come from analog (or digital) cable. The current reception problems with indoor antennas dramatized by the Sinclair Broadcasting demonstrations in Baltimore point out the way that events have taken a detour away from the original expectations of HDTV and have failed to measure up. Yes, new chips have been announced which have substantially better performance as ghost cancellers. But all of this expense and inconvenience will just give us back what we already have today: standard definition television!

HDTV can be implemented along with the current television channel plan. And as receiver tuners are improved, all of these channels can be more densely packed, and other communications needs accommodated sooner and more cheaply than by the existing digital broadcasting cram down. Clearly, there is much more to say on this subject. More next time.



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