Two clear messages came from recent Congressional hearings on the stalled transition to digital: The industry must quickly resolve reception problems, and broadcasters must offer high-definition programming as part of their new services.
While hearings were being held, the FCC's biennial review was placed on the back burner. It is nearly certain that little will happen on that front until after Maximum Service Television concludes its Washington, D.C., reception tests. Even then, little movement is expected with national elections just around the corner.
While the hearings focused, in part, on the debate over COFDM and 8VSB, they did little to dispel the uncertainty regarding the ATSC standard.
ATSC proponents did succeed in receiving signals from Washington, D.C., area DTV stations, but they set up their antennas in a window. The COFDM system used a much simpler antenna well inside the room's walls. One attendee said he was just waiting for someone to ask for the ATSC antenna to be co-located with the COFDM antenna, but the request never came.
While the differences between 8VSB and COFDM were being aired, the Congressional committee ultimately charged 8VSB proponents with resolving the outstanding 8VSB reception problems.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection, chaired the hearings. Tauzin's spokesperson Ken Johnson said the hearings were an attempt to "nudge" the industry into quickly resolving the modulation standard debate.
"Clearly there's a lot at stake. Broadcasters will be spending millions of dollars making the transition to digital, and frankly we've got to get this right the first time," Johnson said.
"The 8VSB guys are telling us they're going to be able to resolve the interference problems," said Johnson. "It's important that they do that. The clock is ticking." Adding, "We need a standard where people don't need to move their antennas from room to room and then rub a rabbit's foot."
The hearing shows that there still remain some differences between proponents of the two competing standards. According to Johnson, Congressman Tauzin's message to those in attendance was clear. "Let's get this worked out before we have a chaotic situation in the marketplace." Johnson continued, "So from that standpoint, it was a productive hearing in that the proponents of both standards had an opportunity to make their case as to what would work best in the marketplace."
Motorola and NxtWave have on more than one occasion reported that they had the necessary fixes and patches to alleviate the more severe problems being encountered in 8VSB reception, particularly multipath. "I think that they acknowledge the current standard needs refinement, and they assured us that they will improve their products to the point where they will be accepted and embraced by the American public," Johnson said.
Johnson said Tauzin is insistent upon "getting it right the first time.
"I think back to when the Sony Beta-max was first introduced to the marketplace. From many people's perspective, it was technologically superior to VHS. But what happened to the Betamax? Like with a lot of people, it's still stuck in my closet, gathering dust. We don't want to see that happen to digital television as well."
While third- and fourth-generation receivers have improved performance, reception problems still exist. Johnson said receiver manufacturers assured Tauzin that reception problems would be resolved within six months or so. Tauzin is willing to grant the industry time to resolve reception problems before asking the FCC or the Congress to intercede.
"Again, this is a marketplace problem that needs to be resolved in the marketplace, if possible," Johnson said.
During the hearings, Tauzin stressed the importance of broadcasters offering some high-definition programming. "If broadcasters retreat on their promise to provide at least some HDTV, they are going to run the risk of losing some of that spectrum, which was loaned them by the federal government," he said.
Some broadcasters have talked about leasing out or selling off some of their digital capability to other services. When asked about this issue, Johnson said, "We've heard a number of broadcasters talking about selling or leasing part or all that spectrum. It's not theirs to lease or sell."