ATTC Closing Marks End of An Era

DTV's birthplace shuts down after 16 years of technology innovations


Sept. 30, 2003 will witness the end of an important chapter in the history of television. On that day, the Advanced Television Technology Center (ATTC) will close and the only independent, nonpartisan testing facility in the U.S. television industry will be gone. Many do not know its name, but virtually every single person in both the television and radio industries is affected by its activities in some way.

"Everybody was very competitive," said Peter Fannon, the first executive director of the Center. "It was a unique and special place."For those unfamiliar with the ATTC, it was the facility where the current ATSC digital television standard for the United States was developed from several previously tested systems. The lab created and tested many of the compliance benchmarks for the ATSC standard once digital television broadcasting began. It also tested much of the new IBOC (in-band, on-channel) digital radio standard from iBiquity, recently adopted by the FCC.

The need for a testing facility arose in the early 1980s, when demonstrations of the NHK 1125 -- line high -- definition system showed that video quality beyond NTSC and PAL was not only possible, but quickly becoming reality. Other technological currents of the time were also giving birth to direct broadcast satellite service, wide distribution of cable television signals, and the increase of computer technologies in consumer and broadcast electronic devices. It was apparent to many in the industry that broadcast television could end up offering the public the lowest picture quality, audio quality and advanced features enabled by digital coding and software design. Clearly, a more advanced television system would be required if broadcast television was to survive.

Two distinct ATTCs existed: the Advanced Television Test Center from 1988 to 1996, and the Advanced Television Technology Center from 1996 to 2003. Both facilities were located in Alexandria, Va., in the same building that housed PBS's headquarters in the Washington, D.C. area.


The ATTC began its life as the Advanced Television Test Center, created in 1987 by a group of forward-thinking broadcasters to serve as an independent testing facility for what had been dubbed the "advanced television" process. Although a number of labs gave birth to the analog television industry, such as the old RCA Labs in Princeton, N.J., the CBS Labs in Stamford, Conn., and the Hazeltine Labs in Long Island, N.Y., when the possibility of replacing the U.S. analog NTSC system was grasped in the 1980s, there was no one facility that could test and verify equipment and systems. The first ATTC served as that testing ground.

Maximum Service Television (MSTV) and the NAB were the driving forces behind creating the center. The process started with the creation of the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (ACATS), the industry-sponsored committee whose sole purpose was to supervise the development of advanced television for the FCC. The next step required an independent laboratory to test proposed systems.

"Build it and they will come," was the catchphrase of the founders. Charlie Rhodes, the chief scientist, (who also pens the monthly "Digital TV" column for TV Technology), was the first hire, followed shortly by Fannon, who became president. Other staff members were recruited from the business of broadcast. Most served until the work was completed.

Twenty-three systems were proposed to ACATS. After an extensive vetting process to separate fantasy from systems that could actually be built, six of them moved to the testing stage. All were analog, including NHK's 6 MHz version of MUSE, and Sarnoff Labs' Advanced Compatible Television (ACTV).

That all changed within a week of the June 15, 1990 deadline when General Instrument proposed the first all-digital system for testing. From that moment on, analog was out and digital was the future of television.

After the first tests were completed, it was clear that no single system was good enough to define the U.S. standard. While waiting to decide how to proceed, the ATTC tested two proposed modulation schemes, QAM and 8-VSB. After considerable negotiations with ACATS chairman and former FCC chairman Dick Wiley, the proponents agreed to merge their systems in 1993 into a best-of-the-best, dubbed the "digital HDTV Grand Alliance." The Grand Alliance chose Zenith's 8-VSB for its combined system, (a bake-off between VSB and QAM digital modulations.)

The Grand Alliance system arrived at the test center in April 1995. Testing lasted until August; the reports were completed and submitted by October. Having completed its work and submitted the final report, ACATS disbanded at the end of 1995. The FCC would approve the Grand Alliance system as the standard for the United States in December 1996.


Even with the selection process completed, it was clear to the ATTC's strongest supporters that a test lab was still needed to deal with the issues that would arise out of the transition to digital broadcasting. Though most of the original members of the center had left, PBS, ABC and CBS were determined to not squander the expertise gained from the ATTC. In early 1996, the Advanced Television Test Center became the "Advanced Television Technology Center." It's new mission was to serve as a laboratory for the digital TV transition and to test technologies beyond digital television.

In each case, the second ATTC did its job just as well as the first ATTC. First, an on-channel repeater system was built near Harper's Ferry, W.V. to bring in WETA-HD (the Washington, D.C.-area PBS station) signals to the terrain-challenged area. It was thought that squeezing all the extra digital channels into a smaller TV spectrum would require use of on-channel repeaters, if the technology could be used by the American DTV system.

Second, the ATTC developed a system to capture complete samples of actual RF spectrum, so receivers could be tested with real-time DTV spectrum, and the multipath challenges of using 8 -- VSB in real -- world transmission would be revealed.

Third, an extensive series of tests of early and actual production DTV receivers allowed manufacturers to better understand the pros and cons of their designs. The addition of the RF capture system allowed for extremely accurate and completely reproducible tests across multiple receiver designs.

Finally, the ATTC designed an RF test bed for the digital radio initiative of USA Digital Radio, which would become the iBiquity digital radio standard adopted by the FCC in 2002.

Over the past year, it was apparent that there remained a need for a lab with the capabilities of the ATTC, but the economic downturn caused testing opportunities to dwindle. In addition, a decision by NAB and MSTV to support the development of a DTV test lab apart from the ATTC did not help its cause. By mid-2003, projects and funding weren't arriving quickly enough to keep the center open. The decision to close the ATTC was made and the dissolution began.


The IBOC test bed was returned to iBiquity in Columbia, Md. The DTV RF test bed will be acquired by CBS and moved to New York; and the tape library and Sony HD machines may follow as well. The rest of the TOC equipment was purchased by a former ATTC employee, who is now a broadcast consultant. The Expert Viewing room is gone, and most of the files have either been discarded or prepared for storage. Sept. 30, 2003 will see the space returned to the building owners and the ATTC will pass forever into history.

As a former ATTC employee twice over, this writer personally experienced the intensity, challenge and occasional emotion of working hard under tough testing conditions. Everyone interviewed for this article expressed the same sentiment: It was a wonderful challenging professional experience with very talented people dealing with issues we all knew would affect the history of both our business and our personal lives.

It's impossible to acknowledge every person or group that participated in the two ATTC incarnations. The staffs were hard -- working people who succeeded in the primary goal of both ATTCs -- to provide the fairest, most impartial and balanced testing facility possible.

"It amazed me that the lab that was designed was flexible enough to test both analog and digital systems," said Joe Widoff, former ATTC vice president for finance and administration. Although the ATTC may be gone, the work accomplished will live on.