ATSC Reorganizes

One year after the FCC re-affirmed its commitment to the Advanced Television Systems Committee's VSB standard for digital broadcast television, the group charged with promoting the U.S. DTV standard here and overseas is reorganizing, testing modifications to its main standard, and strengthening its promotion efforts in Latin America.
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WASHINGTON

(click thumbnail)The ATSC Forum, under the leadsership of Robert Graves (left) will focus on education and promotion of ATSC standards worldwide. Mark Richer (right) is president of the new ATSC Inc.
One year after the FCC re-affirmed its commitment to the Advanced Television Systems Committee's VSB standard for digital broadcast television, the group charged with promoting the U.S. DTV standard here and overseas is reorganizing, testing modifications to its main standard, and strengthening its promotion efforts in Latin America.

In 2001, the ATSC lost some influence as Taiwanese broadcasters rejected their government's earlier endorsement of VSB and moved toward Europe's DVB technology. At home, cable industry consortium CableLabs Inc. chose DVB as the standard for cable's interactive services.

For 2002, the organization has restructured, splitting its standard-setting and advocacy branches. ATSC is testing a set of "enhancements" to its centerpiece A/53 standard, and this month published a draft of its DASE-1 interactive standard and seeking comments and revisions.

KOREA GOES DIGITAL

In South Korea, the government has stuck to its commitment to VSB, and the commercial Seoul Broadcasting System began high-definition digital broadcasts in October, marking the first time the U.S. DTV standard has been used in commercial broadcasts in another country. Five channels now use VSB in the Seoul area, broadcasting at least 10 hours of HD programming (1080/60i) a week, according to Korean Information Ministry official Yang-Shin Cha.

One station, Munwha Broadcasting Corp., is continuing to test DVB's COFDM standard and revealed unofficial results in December that favored COFDM. But Cha said the tests have not been reliable.

"We have not found any technical evidence to re-consider the [ATSC] standard," Cha said.

DVB Project Executive Director Peter MacAvock would not comment on the Munwha tests, and Graves dismissed Munwha as "the Sinclair Broadcasting of Korea," referring to the American company that has persistently questioned the U.S. VSB-only policy.

DRIVING SOUTH

ATSC sees its standard as the future of digital TV in the Americas, and the new advocacy arm of the organization – the ATSC Forum, led by former ATSC chairman Robert Graves – has set the Western Hemisphere as its top priority.

HD tests have been running in Mexico City for four years, and a Fox affiliate in Tijuana broadcasts digitally to its San Diego-area audience. But the big prize may be Brazil, which has not yet chosen its standard.

ATSC has lobbied Anatel (Brazil's telecommunications bureau) to adopt its standard – if not for technical reasons, then for the economic and political benefits that could come from a single DTV technology in the Americas.

Graves warns the Brazilians against repeating a policy of the 1970s of using a variation of the Japanese PAL standard, which resulted in the nation becoming a technological orphan of sorts, with televisions costing far more than sets adapted for neighboring nations.

"Broadcasters made an initial recommendation to Anatel in favor of the Japanese system, based in part on some very questionable testing methodology," Graves said. "Anatel, unlike the Brazilian broadcasters, has made very clear that they see it not so much as a technical issue as an economic issue, and they're really looking at a broad range of factors."

Some expect an official decision from Brazil this summer, but no exact date has been promised, and the government and broadcasters may not be in step.

"We would feel a lot better if we had more Brazilian broadcasters on our side in this debate," Graves said.

Graves also predicts ATSC adoption soon by Chile and Mexico. Argentina had once declared itself an ATSC nation, but political and economic chaos there has pushed the issue beyond the back burner. Canada has pledged its ATSC allegiance but is not expected to begin broadcasts before late 2002.

A single standard for the Americas would mean a single market for equipment and technology of about 800 million potential consumers.

"The compelling economic reason is just economies of scale, and all countries in the Americas would benefit, including the U.S., from having an expanded market," Graves said.

MacAvock said that the Eurpean standard is alive and well over satellite, and the terrestrial DVB-T standard is "well placed" in Brazil, and that Chile, Mexico and other nations are awaiting further decisions in Brazil.

A/53 FLEXIBILITY

ATSC is testing proposals for enhancements to its DTV standard ("A/53"). One set of enhancements, with a draft ready in May or June, may improve the multipath performance of VSB – that is, enable easier reception of the signal when lines of sight are blocked by buildings, walls, or other objects, said ATSC Inc. President Mark Richer. The other area would allow broadcasters flexibility by sacrificing bitrate for increased robustness of signal.

That modification involves a secondary, robust stream that might work with lower signal strength. Richer said that with the modifications, broadcasters would be able to decide how much bitrate they want to sacrifice for a more robust signal.

"The bottom line is, you don't get anything for free. If you want to gain a few db in performance you're going to lose some throughput," Richer said. "Whether broadcasters want to use it and make those tradeoffs or not, they'll have to decide."

Under some circumstances, the bitrate might be so low that high-definition video would not be possible. But it's also possible, Richer said, that a broadcaster might sacrifice only a small amount of bitrate.

"As an example, an application might be that you want to just code the sound in this robust mode," Richer said. "It's pretty likely that you could do something like that and still do HD."

Graves said that the modifications would give broadcasters the flexibility they've sought.

"Those concerns are very much overblown," he said of the prospect that broadcasters would abandon high-definition for a stronger signal. "I firmly believe that HDTV will be what TV is in the U.S. within five years."

The European system, by contrast, has forsaken HDTV, he said.

"It kind of gets my goat sometimes when people compare what we're doing here to what's going on the U.K. That's a pay TV service, offering only standard-definition TV," he said. "And that's not what digital TV is about the U.S, at all. It's about upgrading the technical quality of free over the air television."

MacAvock said it was "rubbish" to say that HDTV does not figure into DVB's plans, noting that HDTV comes over DVB-S via satellite in the U.S. over EchoStar's service, and over the air in DVB-T in Australia.

For 2002, the new ATSC Inc., under Richer, will focus on the core task of setting standards. The new, separate ATSC Forum, led by Graves, will promote the standards.

The separation should assuage any lingering, if misguided, concerns that having one entity set the standards while promoting them was a potential conflict of interest, Graves said.

"Some people thought, how can we be doing an objective evaluation of alternatives to the standard at the same time we're preaching how great our standard is to other counties, encouraging them to adopt that standard?" Graves said. "I never had a problem with doing that. Everything we do we do objectively anyway."

IMPROVING STANDARDS

Several other technologies are also in the works at ATSC, including datacasting standards, PSIP, and other issues, many of which will be discussion subjects at the ATSC Standards Seminar ("Charting the Future of DTV") Feb. 20 and 21 in St. Louis.

This month, ATSC elevated its DTV Applications Software Environment (DASE-1) interactive specifications to the level of "candidate standard," calling for feedback on technological and implementation issues. ATSC says the standard will ensure applications can run uniformly on models of DTV receivers while giving manufacturers flexibility in their hardware and operating systems.

"We're letting the world know we're about to finish up standardization on this, and if you want to give us any feedback, that would be very helpful," Richer said.