MSTV and NAB Have Spoken; Now What?

You might not have noticed that journalists sometimes get things wrong. No, I ain't talking about everything they wrote about the MSTV/NAB joint resolution; I'm talking about everything they asked – or didn't.
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SOMEWHERE OUT THERE You might not have noticed that journalists sometimes get things wrong. No, I ain't talking about everything they wrote about the MSTV/NAB joint resolution; I'm talking about everything they asked – or didn't.

They say there are six basic questions to ask for any news story: who, what, when, where, why and how. I say tauroid patooties! There are either a bazillion questions or one. The one is what? (or, as I am wont to put it when I'm confounded, whuzzuh??).

Observe how simply the Universal Question disposes of the other five: Who = what person. When = what time. Where = what place. Why = what reason. How = what way.

So I will now apply the UQ (pronounced uck to us cognoscenti) to the first big TV technology story of the third millennium. Ahem. As the shepherd butted in the back by a ram might have asked, "What the flock happened?"

HISTORY LESSON

Might I interest you in a wee bit of history? Way, way, way back in the last millennium, when the Grand Alliance was pounding out a U.S. digital terrestrial television broadcasting (dTTb) system, some folks raised the possibility of its being COFDM, so we got 8-VSB instead.

Still back in that there last millennium (you know, the one with the epidemic of plague, the Spanish Inquisition, the Civil War and other stuff in that temporal neighborhood), Our Beloved Commish (aka "The FCC") issued its dTTb rules, calling for 8-VSB. Around a year and a half after said rules, the first 8-VSB receiver appeared on the market. And it was not good.

I ain't blaming the modulation system here; I'm just pointing something out about that there first receiver. Matter of fact, I ain't the only one to have pointed a finger at that receiver. Sinclair did some comparative testing with it, and it seems that everyone – even its manufacturer – said the tests weren't really tests because (aside from everything else) they used that lousy-quality first-generation 8-VSB receiver.

Dang! I lied in that last paragraph (but, as long as I admitted it before the end of my ranting period, I won't be prosecuted). 'Twasn't everyone who complained about the Sinclair tests. Nope. Sinclair (and some others) didn't complain. Instead, they asked that, if all checked out interference-wise, COFDM be allowed to be added as an option to U.S. dTTb – not made mandatory, mind you – just an option.

THE ANSWER WAS ‘NO’

Our Befuddled Commish turned them down. Among the reasons spouted were that the COFDM option would delay the introduction of dTTb and that dual-modulation-standard dTTb receivers would cost too much.

So MSTV and NAB decided to do some comparative testing of their own. The results, not released until the present millennium, weren't too good for COFDM.

Sinclair says that's because the receiver used wasn't properly filtered. I could point out that it was another 6 MHz-versus-the-world issue, just like the one I ranted about the last lunar cycle (except in the opposite direction), but why would I want to do that?

Anyhow, no matter who's lying or did improper testing or has an ulterior motive (which is the sort of thing that can give one a pain in the ulterior), the MSTV and NAB boards voted to stop testing COFDM, and, on the last working day that it was part of Bill Clinton's government, Our Bemused Commish "affirmed the 8-VSB modulation system of the DTV transmission standard, concluding that there is no reason to revisit its decision denying a request to allow use of an alternative DTV modulation standard," according to the official government press release.

Just a wee bit more history: From the time Our Brave Commish issued its dTTb rules through the end of the most recent November, a whopping 66,269 8-VSB receivers were sold by manufacturers. Let's pretend every one of them somehow made it into a viewer's home (tomorrow we can pretend that a resistor is a transistor); that'd be around 0.06 percent of U.S. TV households, or, to put it another way, essentially zip over the course of more than three-and-a-half years.

Last tidbit: At the first Consumer Electronics Show of the third millennium (that'd be this January), there were around eight new 8-VSB set-top receivers shown. Add to those the existing RCA DTC100, the dTTb 8-VSB card for the EchoStar 6000, and the old Unity Motion jobbies, and you get around a dozen different brands of 8-VSB receivers. They've all got something in common besides 8-VSB (and power cords and F-connectors). They can all also receive and decode HDTV satellite signals. Methinks the DTC100 is still the cheapest, at $549 list.

WHAT THE OTHERS SAY

Okay, I'm done with the past. Time to go into coast mode for a while and let some other folks do the writing. This is from the MSTV test report executive summary:

- Baltimore/Washington outdoor antenna on a 6-foot mast - "Successful reception of either system [COFDM or 8-VSB] was achieved at less than 50 percent of sites, which is disappointing." Merely disappointing?

- Baltimore/Washington indoor antenna - "Successful indoor reception was achieved at only about 30 percent of sites, which is disappointing." Still just disappointing?

- Cleveland outdoor antenna on a 6-foot mast - "8VSB achieved only a 28 percent success rate, which is disappointing." Methinks I detect a pattern here.

- Cleveland indoor antenna - "However, even 8-VSB achieved only a 26 percent success rate, which is disappointing." My, my!

This is from an ATSC press release dated January 19, 2001, carrying the comments of Robert Graves on the recent developments:

" ... further improvements are in the pipeline from a variety of manufacturers. Moreover, work is under way within the ATSC to further enhance the ATSC/VSB standard by adding more robust transmission modes that address emerging DTV applications, and we expect to issue a Request for Proposals for these enhancements shortly." Uh-huh. I wonder if reception is considered an "emerging DTV application."

STRONGER SIGNALS

And then there's Our Bettering Commish's own press release – yes, the same one that "affirmed the 8-VSB modulation system." It says they "ordered that by December 31, 2004, commercial DTV stations must provide a stronger signal to their communities of license than the DTV service contour they were initially required to provide. Noncommercial DTV stations must provide the enhanced signal strength to their communities by December 31, 2005."

Methinks this is a good time for a recap. Whatever they did or didn't show about COFDM, the MSTV tests showed that 8-VSB receivers currently leave a lot to be desired. Five-and-a-half years after it issued A/53, the ATSC is just now planning to issue an RFP for enhancements for "more robust transmission." Our Backpedaling Commish wants to increase some dTTb power levels when we're already suffering DTV-into-NTSC interference.

In the 3 years plus that 8-VSB receivers have been available, they haven't penetrated even a tenth of a percent of U.S. TVHH – not by a long shot – even with hit movies, sports, and primetime programming transmitted in HDTV.

I'm going to take a giant leap here and say that it seems to me that something ain't working. Now, then, once again, I ain't going to say 8-VSB is bad or COFDM is better, but it seems to me that Sinclair's petition never called for junking 8-VSB, just for giving broadcasters the option of COFDM.

DELAY, SHMAY

"But, Mario, what about the delay that would introduce? What about the cost of adding COFDM reception capability?"

Delay that would introduce? The ATSC is just now planning to ask for RFPs to make 8-VSB more robust, and you're asking about the delay the addition of COFDM would introduce? Our Bountiful Commish is asking for higher power levels at the end of 2004, and you're talking about delay now? Sinclair made its proposal 2 years ago. No, I don't think I'm capable of answering your question about delay – at least not civilly.

As for your second question, you might have noticed a paragraph at the end of my history section about all the new 8-VSB set-top box receivers out there. Matter of fact, I'd say you can't buy an 8-VSB STB receiver without satellite-reception capability anymore.

"What's your point, Mario?"

My point is that it's one whole heck of a lot harder to add satellite reception (dish aimed at the satellite with no obstructions, low-noise amplifier, different RF bandwidth, QPSK demod, completely different data package, different video coding) to an 8-VSB receiver than to add COFDM. If there were only one 8-VSB/satellite receiver around, and if it cost more than all the rest, then I'd say that the satellite reception capability didn't mean anything. But when all the STB 8-VSB receivers have satellite capability, including the least expensive of them, it's kind of hard to complain with a straight face about the cost of adding COFDM.

STATING THE OBVIOUS

"So, Mario, what's going on?"

Well, as far as all those satellite receivers go, I'd say that one's pretty obvious. HDTV-display makers want to sell them, and the best way of doing that is by offering satellite – not dTTb – capability. Not only is reception more assured, but HBO, alone, has been offering more HD programming by satellite than probably all earthbound broadcasters combined.

As far as the MSTV and NAB boards, I ain't a mind reader, but I'll toss this out to chew on. Suppose dTTb reception worked great. Well, then there wouldn't be much incentive for Our Benevolent Commish to force cable systems to carry it, would there? But, if the only way dTTb will get into most homes is via cable, that's a different story, isn't it?

"Mario, are you accusing the boards of deliberately sticking with a problematic dTTb transmission system to force the issue of DTV/cable must-carry?"

Geez! I'm not accusing anyone of anything, and I thought I've been taking great pains not to blame 8-VSB either. All I'm saying is that it couldn't hurt to ask a few questions, like who, what, when, where and especially why.

"That's all?"

And how!