DTV Homesteading

This year's ninth annual Iowa DTV Symposium, sponsored by Iowa Public Television, was our most successful yet, with over 400 people from all over the country attending. The growth was attributed to a couple of elements.
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Video today, multiple data streams tomorrow

JOHNSTON, IOWA: This year's ninth annual Iowa DTV Symposium, sponsored by Iowa Public Television, was our most successful yet, with over 400 people from all over the country attending. The growth was attributed to a couple of elements.

First, the focus of the program, on both the technical and content sides, is practical implementation of DTV technologies in the real world. Second, we look at the entire DTV process from creation to consumer, recognizing that the entire system has to be properly implemented. Failure to do so in any area can result in the content not reaching consumers, at a time when consumers seem to be embracing DTV.

As of July, the Consumer Electronics Association predicted that 2003 factory-to-dealer sales of DTV products would exceed that of analog products by roughly $400 million. This would mark the first time that DTV sales have exceeded analog. Even though it's not yet an HD resource, DVDs were the original driving force behind DTV display purchases. Now, however, satellite and cable, which collectively serve between 70 and 80 percent of U.S. homes, are beginning to offer true HDTV content. The big attractions under the tent here are sporting events and feature films.

Yet one trend that continues is consumer frustration over the complexity of hardware and confusion in the DTV alphabet soup. HDTV, EDTV, SDTV, 1080i, 720p, 480i, and on and on it goes. Will cable carry HD content originating from local stations? Will the local stations ever produce their own HD content at all? What about satellite?

There is a huge educational void between the consumer and the suppliers regarding all of this, and the point of contact is most likely a relatively untrained consumer product sales rep on the floor of a large retail store, who, by the way, will probably not be at that job for more than a year before moving on. Most of those stores sell DBS hardware and services as well as DTV hardware, so it's in their best interest to have a DBS system installed at the store for demonstrations.

Many don't have a terrestrial antenna installed since very few of their customers are interested or willing to install an outdoor antenna.

Even if they do, the lion's share of the customers are in the stores during the daytime when most broadcast stations are not running HD content, and upconverted analog looks pretty poor when compared to digital SD or true HD. So consumers' exposure to terrestrial HDTV can be pretty limited.

RECON MAN

About once a quarter, I go out to a few of the local super stores, play consumer and ask about DTV. I started doing this more than five years ago and a lot has changed in that time. There is a marked increase in the familiarity and accuracy of the information coming from the store sales reps regarding the basic concepts of DTV. With the advent of satellite-delivered HD content, there are some sales people who can discern the improvement between HD and DVD content.

The gap is most pronounced between the cable and local television station connection, and that's frequently the deal killer for the consumer.

Hardware prices will drop based on volume, just like with DVD players. True HD displays are available and according to information presented by the CEA at the November SMPTE conference, the average price is near $1,400. At the Iowa DTV Symposium, Maryann Baldwin from Magid Research presented data that indicated the consumer buying point is about $882 Although there is still a gap, it is narrowing rapidly.

So where does this leave terrestrial broadcasters? The landscape is changing rapidly with the introduction of HD content from satellite, cable and very soon from affordable DVDs. The special edition of "Terminator 2" includes a second DVD with a Windows Media 9 compressed HD version of the movie. In the not too distant future, the FCC and/or Congress will have to act to resolve cable carriage, and the best minds seem to indicate that there will be a must-carry provision of some sort, but it will probably be for a station's primary stream only. The strategy that I have suggested is that we initiate full-time HD and use all of our bandwidth for our primary stream. The multicast and datacast applications are interesting ideas and there will eventually be business plans to support them, but only if there is cable bandwidth to carry them.

Think of it as a homestead plan to acquire the real estate with the idea that eventually you'll be able to modify the structure to meet later needs.

In his keynote address at the Iowa DTV symposium, NAB's lead lobbyist, John Orlando, spoke about the need to have cable as a serious partner in the DTV transition. The recent agreement between the parties concerned regarding the plug-and-play capability of DTV sets was a good start. However, cable continues to remain inflexible regarding carriage of the DTV signal. It is critical that cable carry both the analog and digital signals. According to Orlando, after the transition, cable must carry the full bandwidth of the DTV stations.

"All free bits must flow!" he said. To listen to Orlando's complete keynote address or to see and hear any of the session material, it can all be found at http://www.iptv.org/dtv/2003/.