Refereeing The Digital Transition: Q&A With Phil Livingston

Evangelizing the American DTV standard around the world while simultaneously working to establish technical standards at home have proved to be too much for one organization. That's why, in November of last year, the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) announced that it was splitting the duties between two separate organizations.

First, a new affiliated organization called the ATSC Forum (headed by former ATSC Chairman Robert Graves) was created to promote the adoption of the U.S. DTV standard throughout the Americas and beyond. Concurrently, to handle the tough technical issues, the group's membership agreed to incorporate itself as the non-profit Advanced Television Systems Committee, Inc. with Mark Richer, previously ATSC executive director, serving as president. This new entity replaces the former executive committee with a board of directors made up of executives from ATSC member organizations.

In January the board of directors elected Phil Livingston of Panasonic Broadcast as the voluntary, part-time chairman of ATSC, Inc. for 2002. A Vice President for Technical Liaison at Panasonic and a veteran expert on signal processing and all things digital, Livingston began his career over 40 years ago as a broadcast engineer at radio stations WVOS, WVIP, and later at WOKR-TV (Rochester). He is also a member of the SMPTE and has been warmly greeted by the broadcast industry as someone who understands the technical issues facing stations making the transition to DTV.

DigitalTV: After years on the manufacturing side, what brought you to the ATSC?

Livingston: First, let me say I love broadcasting, and got my FCC "First Phone" (first-class radiotelephone license) in 1961 to work as a radio station chief engineer. The ATSC has a wonderfully diverse membership comprised of the broadcast, cable, satellite, motion picture, computer, consumer electronics, and semiconductor industries, and, because it's working toward the future of broadcasting, I've been involved with ATSC since 1987. As someone from a manufacturer, it's an honor to be asked to serve such an eclectic group.

DigitalTV: How do you see the ATSC? Has the organization lost its clout within the industry?

Livingston: As a membership-based organization, we need to demonstrate our value and relevance to both present and prospective members to assure that we remain useful and productive. I see my role as working with the board of directors and president to expand the role of the ATSC as a forum to discuss and hopefully resolve issues among industry segments and to help provide the tools for their businesses.

DigitalTV: What are some of the important DTV issues the ATSC has targeted?

Livingston: While many think the ATSC standardization process is finished, the inherent nature of digital technology fosters new applications and the need for new technical standards. Our continuing work in data broadcasting and the development of DASE (DTV Application Software Environment, designed to ensure that enhanced and interactive content will run uniformly on all DTV receivers) are good examples. There is also the work needed to answer the dynamics of implementation.

DigitalTV: Are you satisfied with the development work being done on ATSC 8-VSB receiver chips? Are you aware that there remain places where DTV reception is next to impossible?

Livingston: Receivers have improved significantly and that trend will continue. I don't want to be cryptic or mysterious, but I understand there may be some announcements in the near future about improved receiving devices. I also don't want to be flip, but there are places without acceptable reception of NTSC, despite the presence of nearby transmitters (e.g. the significant metropolitan penetration of cable), and we all know mobile phones don't work everywhere either! The VSB enhancement work will help members assess what kinds of enhancements might be possible in the transmitted DTV signal, as well as in receivers. This work has strong broadcast member participation, including the lab testing that will continue through the spring.

DigitalTV: Several companies have proposed different ways of addressing mobile and indoor reception, sometimes referred to as enhanced 8-VSB. Will we see a conglomeration of several proposals into one specificationÑi.e., the Grand Alliance spec for DTV?

Livingston: We are blessed to have the broad constituency we have, and our members bring both knowledge and a willingness to cooperate and negotiate. This means that the ATSC is the one forum where the issues can be vetted and debate encouraged in a neutral, productive environment. Of course the ATSC, like other standards organizations, often selects elements of various proposals and combines them into a final specification.

DigitalTV: It has been acknowledged that enhanced 8-VSB, as it's currently being proposed, will not support HDTV transmission, only SDTV. If this is true, how will stations broadcast HDTV otherwise?

Livingston: I believe this is a bit of a misstatement, since the enhancement effort already underway includes a number of different strategies and concepts, like layered signal approaches, robust training signals, and more rugged audio. One can expect the final specifications to include modes that the broadcaster can select to fit their business requirements just as the ATSC standard allows broadcasters to determine their unique combination of services, such as HDTV, SDTV, and data broadcasting.

DigitalTV: Do you think it might be a problem for American broadcasters in the future that most of the world has adopted the European DVB-T transmission system, while the U.S. employs the ATSC system? [Editor's Note: Countries that have publicly committed to adopting the ATSC digital standard include Argentina, Canada, South Korea, and the U.S.]

Livingston: First, I'm not sure that Ômost of the world' has adopted DVB-T, but certainly many countries have. I think that much of the rest of the world, especially Europe, is less interested in HD for terrestrial broadcast than we are here in the U.S. There are also different channel bandwidth constraints, ownership considerations...even the sheer number of broadcasters and mix of media alternatives vary. More importantly perhaps are economies of scale in manufacturing among the many elements that support these different transmission standards, each of which has already been adopted for large markets.

DigitalTV: Among the reasons broadcasters have given for not vacating the analog spectrum is the minimal penetration of digital receivers thus far. How long do you think it will take before roughly 85 percent of the country has access to a digital signal, which is one of the criteria for stations to broadcast only in digital?

Livingston: If my crystal ball were that good the folks in marketing at Panasonic would be buying me lunch! Overall, the terrestrial transition to DTV is very complex, and the 85 percent Ôaccess to digital' number is also complex because it isn't limited to classic, over-the-air transmission. DTV broadcast contributes to that percentage. Ultimately, success is dependent on many players and many factors, including finding ways to encourage consumers to Ôbuy in' with receivers.n

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Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC)