TCS Daily

HDTV's Blurry Future

By John Merline - January 31, 2002 12:00 AM

Earlier this month, Korean engineers released a report that should be of substantial concern to American television viewers. The test compared two broadcast standards for digital TV - the standard adopted by the U.S. versus a competing standard chosen by just about every other country on the planet. The result: the U.S. standard was found to be inferior to the so-called COFDM standard.

Korea had already adopted the U.S. standard, but based on the results of the test, it may rethink its decision. If it does, it would leave just the U.S. and Canada with the so-called 8-VSB digital transmission standard. And that would be yet another troubling development in the already faltering U.S. transition to digital TV.

Back in 1996, Congress decided digital broadcasts were vital to U.S. national interests, it handed billions of dollars worth of spectrum to broadcasters, who in turn were told to convert their broadcasts from decades old analog over to state of the art digital. The transition was supposed to be finished by 2006, at which point broadcasters are supposed to turn off their analog signals. But halfway into it only a tiny fraction of TVs can pick up digital over-the-air signals. Last year, in fact, just over a million digital sets were sold, compared with roughly 24 million analog sets. And just one in five of those digital TVs came with a digital receiver capable of getting over-the-air signals. At this rate, the 85% penetration rate for digital TVs will never be met.

The consumer electronics industry blames broadcasters for not putting up enough content. Today, about 20% of homes still can't get any digital broadcasts, and few programs are in the highest quality HDTV. Broadcasters blame the cable industry for not carrying their digital signals over their cable lines. But clearly an impediment to the growth of digital TV is that good reception of the digital signal is tough to get, tougher in many cases, than passable pictures with good-old-analog. Even using a state-of-the-art indoor antenna, the picture has a tendency to blank out when people move around the room, if it can be captured at all, according to an analysis by Consumers' Research magazine published last June that looked at digital reception in four locations around Washington, D.C.

The industry is banking on improvements to the U.S. transmission standard and better receivers that overcome some of the weaknesses in the 8-VSB standard. Philips, meanwhile, has introduced an inexpensive digital TV decoder, that, if embedded in regular TVs, would let them get digital signals essentially for free. The hope is that, if broadcasters start multicasting over their digital signals, consumers could get multiple channels from each network, without paying a cable bill. That model has worked successfully in Britain. But its success here depends entirely on overcoming the ease of reception problem.
Yet, despite years of promises from industry of an imminent breakthrough, none of any real significance has emerged. If Korea decides to abandon the U.S. standard, it will be tough to keep selling the claim that the U.S. got it right and everybody else got it wrong -- especially so as a Korean firm, LG Electronics, holds the patent on the U.S. transmission standard.

More importantly, if the market for digital equipment that can pick up 8-VSB signals is limited on the globe to the United States and Canada, consumers here will almost certainly pay more for it. That's partly why the Advanced Television Systems Committee has been pressuring Brazil to adopt the U.S. standard, despite Brazil's own findings that COFDM is better. As ATSC chairman Robert Graves said at a meeting in Sao Paulo in August, if Brazil adopted the U.S. standard, it "would ensure that a common DTV standard would be adopted throughout the Americas, leading to the creation of a single hemispheric market of 800 million consumers."

Wouldn't it be better if everyone adopted the system that works best?


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