By Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D.,Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

In September, the FCC proposes to auction off channels 60 to 69. This is expected to generate a huge amount of money for the U.S. Treasury, making the FCC a profit center for the U.S. government. This has potentially unpleasant ramifications for the cable industry. Why?

In 1983, television broadcast channels 70 to 83 were reassigned to cellular phone service. For the broadcasters, this was a terrifying event. They did not want any more spectrum to be lost. To support that position, they argued that the future of broadcasting was in High Definition Television (HDTV). Broadcasters insisted that HDTV required that none of the remaining spectrum be given to others.

The FCC put out some guidelines for HDTV proposals. Most importantly, the HDTV signal was restricted to 6 MHz—it could not take any more spectrum than good old NTSC. The Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) was formed. Soon, there were 23 proposed HDTV systems using analog technology.

Unfortunately, none of the analog systems provided acceptable results. Zenith Electronics Corp. then proposed a very clever hybrid system that recognized that the high power of the NTSC signal lay primarily in its low frequency synchronization pulses. While Zenith's approach was clever, it only served to point the direction to digital. General Instrument Corp. came up with an all-digital solution. Most of the analog proposals were abandoned. Soon, all of the remaining proponents of HDTV systems had all-digital offerings except for the Japanese MUSE system.

At this point, the goal was still HDTV; only it had become digital HDTV. This new television service was meant to eventually take over and allow everyone to have wall-sized television. But first it would be very expensive. It would be for the financially well-off and the enthusiasts to be the pump primers. They would pay premium prices for the early units. Then, as the quantities produced increased, the cost and price would come down to levels affordable by the rest of us.

In that environment, a very critical priority was to do no harm to the existing NTSC service. The new HDTV standard must not interfere with it. To accomplish this priority, severe restrictions were required. The signal power must be low. The modulation scheme must be very efficient. And, even though the power content was to be very low, the signal must not degrade as a result of NTSC co-channel interference.


The solution of these rather stringent constraints yielded the 8-VSB modulation system. It satisfied these constraints very well, particularly the protection of the existing NTSC service. Extensive tests verified that this was the case. But these severe constraints may have required a rooftop antenna or more advanced ghost cancelling. The cost and inconvenience of a rooftop antenna would not be a problem for a premium service to an expensive wall-sized HDTV installation in a residential media room. The important priority was not to interfere with the existing analog NTSC signals.

But then the rules of the game changed drastically. Suddenly, HDTV was no longer the goal. The objective became Digital TV (DTV). One flavor of DTV was based on the realization that the same compression techniques that could squeeze HDTV into 6 MHZ could squeeze multiple Standard Definition Television (SDTV) signals in the same spectrum as previously required for HDTV. Instead of just one very expensive-to-produce HDTV signal, multiple cheap SDTV signals could be transmitted. The hope to compete with cable and other multi-channel video providers arose in the broadcaster's heart. This meant that DTV now was slated to be a replacement and quantity enhancement for NTSC.

Also, Congress decided that spectrum was a surplus government asset that could be sold to the highest bidder in an auction. The only sad part was that consumers would be forced to buy new digital television receivers (or set-top adapters) just to be able to receive the same kind of programming they currently got over-the-air.

Unfortunately, a digital TV replacement for analog TV is quite a horse of a different color. The previous modulation solution, which had the top priority of not interfering with NTSC, suddenly became inadequate.

A new use for DTV arose: Datacasting. This would allow broadcasters to become Internet participants. HDTV received lip service, but had fallen off the priority list of most broadcasters. To make matters worse, the wild-eyed optimists were now getting excited about mobile applications.

8-VSB was shackled with new constraints, while the original top priority was forgotten. This drastic change of events made its survival almost out of the question. Because it did the old job so well, it could not do the new job very well at all.

What to do now? One possible solution is to change the standard. Either make enhancements to 8-VSB or go to another modulation scheme. But this is embarrassing. It also has the almost certainty of delaying the rollout of digital TV. This would mean that analog NTSC would have to serve the broadcast needs of the country for a few years longer. It could not be retired.

One potential other transmission standard is the one chosen by essentially all of the rest of the world—COFDM. But COFDM does not quite fit the severe constraints which yielded 8-VSB. A COFDM transmission standard would lay ruin to the carefully designed plan for frequency allocation.

Using COFDM instead of 8-VSB would likely require reassigning channel frequencies. In this case, the channel numbers 60 to 69 are likely needed for a workable COFDM channel assignment plan. But if those channels are auctioned off in September, a COFDM channel plan based on use of these channels might not be possible. This may mean that we must stick with 8-VSB. Auctioning channels 60 to 69 might close the door on other options.

The really bad news then becomes that it's likely that the only way to save the 8-VSB system is to require cable must-carry. While this would result in the confiscation of still more of cable's channels, it would avoid embarrassing the FCC, the consumer electronics industry and even Congress, and it might allow the auctioning of channels 60 to 69 so that the FCC could be a profit center. It would further facilitate the auctioning of the other channels, raising still more money. The fact that this results in several severe inequitable consequences might not be considered as important as avoiding a governmental embarrassment. These inequities include displacing channels subscribers prefer to accommodate the forced must—carry channels. Other inequities include the obsolescence of the 270 million NTSC color TVs and 150 million NTSC VCRs. This would force the purchase of new digital television receivers or digital set-top boxes by everyone, including those least able to afford such a burden.