Ciciora's Corner

Sat, 09/30/2000 - 8:00pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues
By Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

It is amazing how an idea can be accepted without question until it becomes painfully obvious that it is flawed. Perhaps it is the painfulness of the truth that forces a blind pursuit of the idea in the hopes that the obvious just isn't so. Then there is a breakthrough. Afterwards, everyone claims they knew it was a dumb idea all along, but they were "just following orders."

Let's look at some examples.

Iridium is a multi-billion-dollar flop, a big mistake, a seriously flawed idea. But it had so much behind it. A lot of smart people and a lot of rich people backed it, along with really major corporations. Iridium is the satellite telephone system that was intended to link everyone in the world. In principle, with an Iridium telephone, a person could call from anywhere in the world to anyone else who had any kind of telephone.

So what went wrong? Most importantly, there were very acceptable and much cheaper alternatives, mainly cellphones. Next on the list of negatives is the fact that those who needed Iridium the most could not afford it. The Iridium concept is most useful in countries with a minimal communications infrastructure. But the inhabitants of countries with a minimal communications infrastructure cannot afford the high price for the telephone and the very high price per minute of usage. The technical negative is that you have to go outside to use it!

Why this wasn't obvious before billions of dollars were spent is a mystery.

The Concorde supersonic transport is another case. It, too, seems like a great idea. But the concept has serious flaws. The Concorde is an economic disaster. It will never pay back its development cost and only rarely covers its operating costs. The Aug. 7, 2000 issue of Aviation Week (my second favorite magazine) says that the Concorde requires 56 man hours of maintenance per flying hour. This is between five and eight times that required for a 747.

But the most shocking Aviation Week story was in its Aug. 28 issue. There apparently were seven instances of fuel tank penetrations due to tire bursts. Because the landing gear is in the air flow to the engine intakes, tire fragments are almost always ingested after a tire burst. The Aug. 7 issue has a dramatic photograph of a Concorde with a hole in its wing. This incident occurred on June 14, 1979 at Dulles airport.

So how could all of these incredible facts be ignored up until the July 25 crash of Concorde serial number 3 that killed a full plane of 109 passengers and crew?

Let's compare all of this to High Definition Television. HDTV is an exciting idea. It is something desired in our viewing rooms as wall-sized screens. But like the other examples above, the HDTV concept may have economic, aesthetic and technical flaws. HDTV has a very functional alternative that seems to satisfy consumers. Ordinary NTSC analog television and digital standard definition television do a great job. We don't hear an out cry from consumers for HDTV.

Then there are the aesthetic issues. An HDTV receiver has to be big. That is both the good news and the bad news. It almost can't be a direct-view picture tube, because such a tube would be much too heavy, and is limited in size by the normal door width. Yes, there are "HDTV" receivers with picture tubes. But they ignore the fact that to get the full advantage of HDTV, you need to be within one to two picture heights from the screen. Much farther away, and you might as well be watching NTSC. The better picture quality of HDTV will be lost in a small size display. So that leaves us with a projection display. Most projection displays are expensive, bulky and not yet full HDTV. They may be better than NTSC, but they haven't yet made HDTV resolution.

The plasma panels have promise, but they are very expensive and quite delicate.

And, of course, there is the technical issue of indoor reception. While all hope is not lost for indoor reception with reasonable antennas, the prospects of an early fix for 8-VSB are not encouraging.

This leads to an HDTV absurdity: a demand for "digital must-carry" from broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers who are frustrated at the slow progress in HDTV's growth. This is an idea that ranks with Iridium and the Concorde. Anyone interested in HDTV and able to afford it will be a cable subscriber, or a DBS subscriber, or both. The converse is also true. Someone who has neither cable nor DBS will almost certainly not be interested in or be able to afford HDTV.

The obvious conclusion is that HDTV should never be broadcast over the air. HDTV should be a premium service offered over cable and DBS to those who want it, and the over-the-air spectrum should be reserved for services which suit the unique capability of the over-the air spectrum. That capability is portable usage. And clearly, HDTV is not portable usage!

Recent examples of heavily supported, but seriously flawed ideas abound. Broadcast HDTV is in good company.


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