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Broadcast Lab Wanes

WASHINGTON

Plans for creating and financing a multi-industry broadcast lab to troubleshoot lingering technical problems with terrestrial digital TV, first announced at the National Association of Broadcasters Winter Board meeting in January 2003, have been greeted with overwhelming apathy from two of the three involved trade groups. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the NAB ultimately ponied up zero support for the apparently doomed joint venture with Maximum Service Television (MSTV).

The financial arrangement to fund the broadcast lab, which was presented to the NAB Board by MSTV President David Donovan more than a year ago, called for NAB to commit $6 million to the test lab over a three-year period. Another $6 million would have come from the electronics-manufacturing members of the CEA for the same 36-month period, with MSTV throwing in an estimated $3 million as initial start-up money.

Yet from its infancy, genuine support for the lab appeared to be dubious, at best, both from NAB and CEA, as reflected in the TV Technology headline last year: "DTV Lab Receives 'Quiet' NAB Commitment."

Today, NAB will not comment publicly on the current situation or the momentum vacuum over the past 16 months. Two independent sources with longtime and direct knowledge of the various political issues that have effectively blocked the lab's creation, agreed that it is primarily the CEA that has blocked any realistic chance of a broadcast lab ever being created. CEA spokesman Jeff Joseph confirmed that its members would not financially support the DTV lab. "There was a general consensus that any continuing work [on the DTV standard] can be addressed through the marketplace and ATSC," he said.

CONFLICTING INTERESTS

"Look, if you represented members like the [CEA] group represents, would you really give your backing and your money to anything that could wind up, down the road, maybe criticizing your product or your business practices? Or even worse, having to inform the FCC about them?" asked one source, a longtime broadcast engineer familiar with many of the proposed lab's start-up details. "And then you maybe have to get into trade secrets. Trade secrets are extremely important to electronics manufacturers. Above all else, the CEA does not believe in government intervention in the free market. As soon the NAB [Board] had brought the CEA into the picture-that was the kiss of death for this lab. Everybody knew what was happening back then and they certainly know it now. The NAB certainly knew."

A second source with firsthand knowledge of the political side of the lab proposal concurred that the CEA was against the idea of a joint industry lab from the very start, but that several NAB Board members were not very enthusiastic about it, either.

"If you now have people saying that the CEA blocked this and never liked the idea to begin with, then your information is correct," confirmed the broadcast industry source. However, MSTV chief Donovan is not pointing fingers at any single party.

In early 2003, Donovan told TV Technology that the NAB Board action signaled a "significant step" toward creation of the lab, and that the plan had "broad-based industry support." The intent of a new lab, he said, was to "improve 8-VSB as a major priority, but it will go beyond that, too, to address other issues." Yet as the NAB Board was cautiously approving the lab initiative nearly 16 months ago, some officials within both the broadcast and consumer electronics industries were already privately voicing skepticism about the lab's goals and its chances for long-term financial stability.

NOT YET DEAD

Today, while conceding that the broadcast lab scenario has gone nowhere, Donovan believes it may be premature to declare that a "broadcast technology initiative" is not going to happen eventually.

"It may not take the form of what was originally envisioned as a partnership with the consumer electronics industry, but we are reassessing the possibilities" he said. "So not having a [broadcast lab] now in early 2004 does not mean that the concept itself, or the issue, is dead."

Neither NAB nor CEA currently are part of Donovan's re-evaluation efforts, which he does not see as a problem.

"Our goal was never to create a group which might have been somehow critical of electronics manufacturers or their products in any shape or fashion," as the CEA may have thought, Donovan said. "The goal was to create a mutually beneficial technology lab for everyone, all parties. Like CableLabs-this [broadcast] group was never designed to be a creature of the trade groups, of CEA or NAB or MSTV. It was conceived to be a separate entity."

Donovan said MSTV is informally talking about some form of digital broadcast "lab-like" concept directly with manufacturers and broadcasters-including some MSTV and NAB Board members-as well as others. (Several days before NAB2004, he said no such informal discussions had yet been planned to coincide with the trade- show.) And Joseph added that CEA continues to have a "positive" relationship with MSTV. "At the end of the day we share the same goals that DTV should be accessible to all TV viewers," he said.

ATTC-CHOPPED LIVER?

Some controversy surfaced when the initial lab plan was approved, after the trade groups involved seemed to snub the then-existing Advanced Television Technology Center (ATTC), which had been enjoying a second life beyond its early days as the industry's chief DTV test center (under a different name). At the time, ATTC officials complained that despite some statements from Donovan alleging that the center had a "very narrow vision on what it was testing," the ATTC actually may have been well-suited for the kind of terrestrial DTV tests required of a new broadcast lab.

"A lab already exists that can accomplish most of the MSTV goals," ATTC Executive Director Paul DeGonia had told TV Technology at the time. The ATTC closed its doors for good last fall.

Today, DeGonia thinks "the idea never had a chance because there was no business plan. My belief is that if there [was] a strong need for a DTV lab, then it would already have happened, and the ATTC would not be history. I think the industry stated its intention when they let the ATTC shut down."

Yet MSTV's Donovan thinks the need for a new lab to test digital transmission schemes is still warranted-despite penetration rates by cable and satellite now approaching 90 percent.

"Yes, absolutely [we need a lab]. Statistics show that a huge number of [receivers] still pull in off-air signals. And, remember that most people watching TV on cable are watching broadcast network programs. So with digital off-air reception of local broadcast stations, viewers will get what most people want to see," Donovan said. "I believe that sometime during the digital transition, we could actually see a renaissance of over-the-air reception by the public."

Asked if he is predicting the comeback of the rooftop antenna or indoor "rabbit ears" across the American landscape-clearly more nostalgia than reality in most 2004 neighborhoods-the MSTV chief said that constantly improving compression rates and other emerging digital technology will continue to change viewing habits and choices in the years ahead.