08.13.2007 03:11 PM
‘Full speed ahead’ is only way to make digital transition successful, Fannon says

It’s been more than a year since the last time HD Technology Update spoke with Peter Fannon, Panasonic VP of technology policy and regulatory affairs, about HDTV, digital television and the direction of the industry in general.

Fannon, whose career has included the top spot at the Advanced Television Test Center, which helped to chart a path for the development of digital HDTV, and at the predecessor to the Association of Public Television Stations, has a well-informed perspective on the direction of the TV industry in no small measure due to his unique background.

In this edition, HD Technology Update once again turns to the two-time winner of the Consumer Electronics Association’s Academy of Digital Television Pioneers’ Best DTV Leadership Award to expand upon his previous insights as they unfold into reality and glean some insight into what might lie ahead.

HD Technology Update: In our previous interviews, you have stated that broadcasters must find new uses for their spectrum in addition to a core HD channel. Two competing mobile TV systems were shown at NAB2007. Concurrently, ATSC announced and is moving forward with a mobile TV standardization process. Is this the type of new service you had in mind, and how do you see the push for mobile TV playing out?

Peter Fannon: It is certainly one kind of new use, and broadcasters have spoken strongly and uniformly that they would like a mobile DTV solution as soon as possible, citing a strong preference for a service to be operational by the time of the digital transition in February 2009. Like so many other media, having the ability to provide service in different dimensions such as mobile and handheld would be a great plus for continued advertising competitiveness and for the development of new service models — everything from viewing current programs in new places to developing new content or forms for mobile and handheld devices. Indeed, mobile/handheld implies more than simply place-shifted viewing of existing programs. It suggests local, timely and even on-demand content, the last made possible by device storage and/or return channels in TV or even other bands.

With so many participants in the ATSC process, including new ATSC members from the automotive, chip design and content spheres, the focus there on developing standards promptly will be getting the best information from all potential stakeholders quickly.

It will be interesting to see if one or more systems launch and get staying power and market share before the conclusion of even this speedy standards process. But competitiveness is what the new world of television anywhere is all about!

HD Technology Update: What other types of new services for DTV spectrum do you envision?

Peter Fannon: It’s an easy step from mobile handheld to imagine the desirability of interactive broadcast DTV as the next area of key broadcaster interest. After all, while existing towers provide a huge downstream outlet for both carouseled and real interactive content, there are ever-increasing ways for return path interaction — not the least of which may be the broadband services likely to appear in both new channels in the 700MHz band and new opportunities in the DTV white spaces. With so many options, I suspect some broadcasters are considering just how to enter the interactive game.

HD Technology Update: Last year you mentioned that the goal of early HD visionaries was the delivery of “1000 lines progressive to the home.” How would you characterize the advancement of 1080p for distribution to the home since we last talked, especially with the rollout of HD-DVD and Blu-ray players? Do you see any momentum building for 1080p distribution via other means, such as IPTV, satellite, cable or even OTA?

Peter Fannon: Packaged media, such as Blu-ray disk, are likely to propel 1080p imagery to become the new norm for HDTV — the best of both worlds, progressive scan with some 2 million pixels. One can already see the advantages on the new 1080p plasma and other HD displays, which themselves are becoming larger screens.

This year, for example, 50in flat panels are the new 42. In fact, the move to ever-larger screens appears to be one of the strongest motivators of first-time HD purchases. Indeed, some retailers report that the primary reason for a consumer’s return of a flat-panel TV is having underestimated the size she wanted at home.

It’s not surprising after all, because flat and thin are dramatically changing the mindset of what television and consumer displays are all about.

The shift to 1080p broadcasting, of course, becomes possible when a new, more efficient codec is adopted for use in over-the-air transmission. While such a move can be anticipated in the future, all stakeholders in the U.S. digital TV transition share a common interest in ensuring that all consumers make the digital move smoothly and without confusion or concern. So, I suspect that a new codec, like other advances in the ATSC standard, will come most effectively for broadcasting after the February 2009 switchover to all digital is successfully completed.

HD Technology Update: If you looked into your crystal ball, what do think will actually happen Feb. 17, 2009? Do you think politicians and regulators will get cold feet and postpone the analog switchoff even though preparations are now underway to auction off returned TV spectrum?

Peter Fannon: Full speed ahead is the only way to make the transition successful. Any hesitation now on the date in my personal view would be a huge mistake and would create massive disruptions and actually undercut all the goals inherent in the transition — significantly improved broadcasting service to the public, emergency communications and commercial services using returned spectrum, as well as the income from auctions and the related economic tidal wave from more wireless and other services.

Over these next few months, there are so many opportunities for government and industry to expand their work together to make the February 2009 date a comfortable and successful reality — the FCC and NTIA, retailers in stores and online and the growing number of individual programs for information and outreach made possible through joint efforts such as the DTV Transition Coalition launched by the NAB, CEA and NCTA..

Other nations have provided very good examples already using rolling transition dates required because of their limited spectrum, but there is no reason why the long discussed overnight switchover cannot occur smoothly in the U.S. as planned if we all continue to work together.

HD Technology Update: On each occasion that you’ve been interviewed for HDTU, you’ve discussed the need for broadcasters to educate the public about the availability of free over-the-air HDTV? There are signs everywhere that the public is almost completely uninformed about the February 2009 DTV transition deadline, let alone knowing about the availability of free OTA HDTV? What’s going on?

Peter Fannon: From what I hear, we can expect the broadcast community very soon to start its own on-air education and promotion campaign. I know the NAB and its members have been working very hard to put this together. Nothing is more powerful than using the TV airwaves themselves.

I suspect we will hear the details next month from NAB, if not at the next Congressional committee DTV hearing.

At the same time, companies like my own are undertaking expanded measures to get the word out. In September, Panasonic will start rolling four big trucks around the country, to local retail partners and key events, promoting both HDTV and consumer options in the transition. This is part of our Living in High Definition program, which launched earlier this month and is aimed at understanding the impact of HD in the life of the family at home and in other settings.

The program includes providing scores of families with a suite of HD products from plasma TVs, camcorders and laptops, to digital still cameras and more, in collaboration with universities and others to gain understanding of how we use or want to use HD and how Panasonic can improve and provide new products to meet those needs.

So, I hope everyone will join us at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show where Panasonic will provide the opening keynote (Jan. 7, 2008) and share some of the findings of this program — and a lot more of course.

Editor’s note: To read HD Technology Update’s previous interviews with Fannon, see: “Work together to ‘enhance’ understanding of broadcast HDTV, says award winner” and “Free OTA broadcasting has a great future, says HD pioneer

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