There is an old party joke that goes: A man goes into a brain store and asks what choices there are. The storekeeper tells him that he can have an ounce of an engineer's brain for $2, or an ounce of a doctor's brain for $3. The store also has lawyers' brains at $20 an ounce and judges' brains at $250 an ounce. The customer asks why the judges' brains are so expensive and the storekeeper says, “Do you know how many judges you have to kill to find an ounce of common sense?” Well, federal judge John Roberts and two of his companions at the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia showed at the end of October that, surprisingly, this isn't always true.
The panel of three judges threw out the absurd claim by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) that the FCC had acted in a so-called “arbitrary and capricious manner” when they ordered tuners (they're all “digital” tuners in the press these days, by the way, not RF any more) to be installed in TV sets in a program starting in July 2004, and that the FCC was going beyond its mandate in believing it had the power to enforce such a thing. The judges disagreed, saying that this will make the purchase of DTV equipment more attractive to consumers generally and help break the logjam discerned by the commission.
I guess that with a tuner we can now start calling them TV receivers again?
Since the FCC order was made in August 2002 we have heard some strange repartee from the receiver vendors, who you would think had been paid off by the cable and satellite industries, including a consistent claim that a tuner would add $250 to the retail price of a receiver! With silicon and module products from companies such as Microtune, that claim is so absurd that one has to wonder how the industry could be so blatant in such nonsensical outbursts. No, if consumer confidence can be increased so that they will be able to take a receiver home, plug in a suitable antenna and be able to receive terrestrial DTV — without calling help lines on the Indian subcontinent — then there is a good chance that DTV can take off in a hurry. As the CEA spokesperson, Jenny Miller, was quoted as saying, the CEA fully intends to follow the law. What will be interesting now is the response of broadcasters and other DTV industries in promoting antenna reception and providing compelling and ample programming. Earth to Ms. Miller — all programming on a DTV station is digital. Duh! The CEA isn't guilty of confusing HDTV with DTV is it? Is that why so many consumers are so confused too?
I'm not saying I'm happy that the arguments of 8-VSB vs. COFDM will almost certainly have to end at this point. Without tuners being an enforced requirement, there was still a chance that the broadcast engineering community would find its own level of common sense and rethink the real problems of 8-VSB reception. Maybe now that they build tuners into their products, some of the manufacturers will take the high road and include the ability to decode either standard? Dream on …
Hopefully, the tuner debacle is now at an end and the CEA and its members won't waste any more of their customers' own money in pursuing this charade any further. If that is the case, then 50 percent of receivers with displays larger than 36 inches will have tuners by June 2004, 100 percent by July 2005; all receivers with displays of 25 inches to 35 inches will require tuners by July 2006, and all receivers with displays larger than 13 inches would have to be so equipped by July 2007.
While we celebrate the holidays this year, it is interesting to envision what the consumer electronic store displays will look like at this time next year with terrestrial DTV reception being a common theme on the larger screen receivers. Certainly the challenges of 8-VSB reception are going to spawn a completely new antenna installation industry that probably will rival the great VHF build-out in the 1950s. Unfortunately, there is no grouping of DTV stations in the UHF bands, such as the rollout of 625-line television in the United Kingdom, where you could buy an antenna by color code optimized for the channels in your locality. And of course we don't have — for the most part — co-siting of DTV stations in any one market.
This is not to say that I think terrestrial DTV has a guaranteed long-term future. But, for now, with the playing field we have, common sense seems to have won out for once. Cost of an ounce of an engineer's brain has now dropped to $1.50.
Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.
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