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DTV Lab Receives 'Quiet' NAB Commitment

WASHINGTON

After months under a leak-proof umbrella of "no comment" rarely seen in the industry from virtually all applicable broadcast officials, the NAB Joint Board's conditional approval of a new broadcast lab in mid-January raises a few questions about its goals: namely, what exactly will be its mission, and will it get the required funding to get off the ground?

NAB's TV and radio boards engaged in "lengthy debate" on the lab (according to NAB board minutes) and finally "expressed a commitment to go forward with the project pending long-term funding commitments" from other interests (broadcasters, manufacturers and other associations). If this does not sound like an all-out endorsement of the project, it's at least partly due to concerns that NAB not get caught footing the bill by itself.

The lab proposal, presented by MSTV President David Donovan at NAB's winter meeting, calls for an NAB financial commitment of $6 million over three years. An additional $6 million over the same period would come from manufacturers from CEA with another $3 million from MSTV itself (to include matching funds). To ensure the radio board's tentative approval (in order to secure a tentative OK from the entire joint board), the new lab also would address digital radio's IBOC technology and other DAB issues.

A majority of the lab's priorities will be DTV-related, but are still to be determined. NAB made clear it will have direct input on approving all potential projects. Prior to the board action, one official involved directly in the proposal denied that "improving 8-VSB digital reception" was a primary reason for the lab's inception, despite published reports to the contrary. Yet following the board meeting, some NAB and other executives acknowledged that improving terrestrial digital reception was paramount to the lab's possible creation.

Following the vote, Donovan said improving 8-VSB "will be a major priority, but it will go beyond that too, to address other issues." Donovan calls NAB's action a "significant step" towards creation of a test lab that he says enjoys "broadbased industry support." Although most major broadcast interests appear to be supportive of the new lab, some industry observers familiar with details of the proposal question how the funding scheme might be sustained after start-up, suggesting the lab's long-term future has not yet been thought through.

"If you want something of this magnitude, how do you sustain it after three years?" asked one industry official who attended the NAB board meeting. "[Improving] the 8-VSB standard will help us take control of our own destiny. We won't necessarily have to rely on cable carriage to have this transmission system." Nevertheless, the official acknowledged, "cable carriage is critical to the success of the [DTV] transition."

The new lab proposal follows by many years the advent of the well-known CableLabs, which Donovan says "has been quite successful." In fact the broadcast industry already has a test facility that has been revamped since its very active days in the 1990s -the Advanced Television Technology Center (ATTC)-that is not currently included in the new proposal. One official suggested the ATTC, which was the major lab for DTV tests in the 1990s under a slightly different name, might not be geared to handle new testing duties. And Donovan says "the ATTC started with a very narrow vision of what it was testing," while a new lab would take on other responsibilities.

Yet Paul DeGonia, who heads the ATTC, takes issue with that possible perception. "I would like to point out that a lab already exists that can accomplish most of the MSTV goals," he said. "That laboratory is the ATTC."

DeGonia says he "would like to make it clear that the current ATTC is not just a continuation of the Test Center, but rather a completely revised laboratory that has three completely automated test beds-one for DTV, another for digital IBOC radio, and a third for data broadcasting. The ATTC staff is completely 100 percent changed from the Test Center staff, bringing new capabilities and skills to the laboratory." He says his group has had "informal discussions" with MSTV, but it has not been invited "to participate in any formal meetings or discussions regarding the new lab."

DeGonia says the ATTC Board is interested in being part of the MSTV proposal, and that "members of the manufacturing community ... strongly support the idea of ATTC serving as the cornerstone of any new laboratory." In 2002, ATTC worked with MSTV to study enhancements to the ATSC system.