Kill the 8-VSB Frankenstein, redux

It was August 2000 when I wrote on this page, “8-VSB technology is a Frankenstein, built from the scraps of other failed ideas … 8-VSB has had almost six years to make itself work, and it still doesn't. We should not gamble on promised future fixes that might make tomorrow's 8-VSB as good as COFDM is today.”

It is not surprising that the editorial drew strong responses on both sides of the issue. The editorial was simply my opinion that many 8-VSB backers were choosing to remain blind to other options, specifically anything like COFDM.

Six years earlier, in 1994, Broadcast Engineering magazine suggested implementing a 15-month delay to accommodate a range of (C)OFDM tests. It seemed a small price to pay for something as important as this nation's DTV platform. Unfortunately, vested interests pushed back with claims that new generations of receivers could solve any reception problems.

A key argument in the original editorial was that 8-VSB was being touted as superior to COFDM under false pretenses. More than a few knowledgeable engineers believed that COFDM would better serve the current (HD) and future (mobile, multichannel) options than would 8-VSB; however, 8-VSB backers claimed those, as of then, nonexistent consumer applications were not sufficiently important to be included in the platform's patchwork solution.

Another straw man argument used by 8-VSB backers was that it would be too expensive to convert the 8-VSB receivers already in the field to COFDM. That couldn't have been true because Sinclair offered to pay for those TV set conversions.

The pro-8-VSB argument focused on two basic, but critical, points: HD is what matters, and it's ready to go.

It is now 17 years later, and an FCC commissioner has proposed that the industry consider replacing 8-VSB with (C)OFDM. I hate to say it, but I told you so.

On Nov. 30, the FCC released its NPRM on opening TV spectrum to wireless broadband services. Along with the clawback provisions in the proposal, this industry's possible technological future was hinted at by Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker. She said, “I accept that this item represents an initial step in updating our TV band rules. Significant and fundamental issues are deferred. In the future, there needs to be a fulsome discussion on additional innovative proposals to address sharing of broadband and broadcast in the TV bands, including the possibility of a broadcast transition from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4, the adoption of a more cellularized broadcast system or a transition from ATSC to OFDM technologies” [my emphasis added].

According to an April 2010 Nielsen report, fewer than 10 percent of homes receive their TV signal via OTA reception. That means up to 90 percent of a station's audience never relies on a transmitted RF signal. These viewers don't give a damn about 8-VSB or ABCD; they just want to watch TV.

Would COFDM have been a better solution for the delivery of DTV and today's mobile and multichannel iterations? We'll never know. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to market with the technology you have, not the technology you might like to have.”

We as an industry picked this Frankenstein, for better or worse, and now we have to live with it — that is, until the FCC decides otherwise.

Send comments