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DTV Standard Battle Rages At NAB

The debate over the U.S. digital transmission standard is far from over.

That much was apparent at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas last week, where supporters of the current 8-VSB modulation standard and backers of Europe’s COFDM scheme lined up on either side of the DTV fence. And they used the same rhetoric they’ve been using since last summer, when Sinclair Broadcast Group began the modulation debate, despite the pronouncement last month by the Advanced Television Systems Committee that it will consider including COFDM in the U.S. standard.

“The time for promises is over, the time for progress has arrived,” stated Nat Ostroff of Sinclair Broadcast Group, who conducted a demonstration of indoor COFDM reception in conjunction with Digital Video Broadcasting, the European digital television standards body.

During the press conference, Ostroff took the portable Nokia Media Screen COFDM receiver and waved it back and forth without breaking up the SDTV picture. If set manufacturers have come up with a similar capability for 8-VSB, Ostroff said, then “show it to us now.”

“We are focused on making sure terrestrial free television survives in the U.S.,” he said, adding that the Media Screen demonstration has established a “benchmark for performance in the U.S.”

Ostroff is hopeful that COFDM can be quickly implemented into the U.S. DTV standard. “The issue is whether there will be roadblock opposition by the 8-VSB players, whether they fight us at every turn,” he said. “If the ATSC supports both systems, it could be done in six months.”

At the other end of the convention center, set makers gathered to say that 8-VSB’s problems were fixable and that a switch to COFDM would halt the digital television rollout.

Representatives from CEA, Mitsubishi, Philips, Thomson, Zenith and 8-VSB chip maker NxtWave Communications – as well as Capitol Broadcasting VP John Greene and former FCC and ACATS Chairman Dick Wiley – pointed to DTV reception tests CBS conducted in Philadelphia using the latest generation of 8-VSB demodulator chips. CBS claimed higher than 90% NTSC replication for both indoor and outdoor 8-VSB reception.

“The assertions that 8-VSB are broken are factually untrue,” said NxtWave CEO Matt Miller. “I think the CBS tests prove that.”

“The only thing switching the standard would do is stop the rollout in its tracks,” said Thomson government affairs director Dave Arland.

“Right now I think it would be a terrible thing if we reversed course,” added Michael Petricone, CEA technology VP. CEA also presented sales figures for DTV, claiming that 17%, or 34,000, of the existing 200,000 DTV products sold since 1998 are capable of receiving 8-VSB over-the-air signals, and 24,631 of those set-tops and integrated receivers were sold in 1999.

CEA projects 50% DTV set penetration by 2006, provided that broadcasters focus on HDTV and original digital content. If broadcasters continue in an “off-ramp” mode of pursuing non-HDTV business models and debating the standard, CEA only predicts 15% penetration.

Wiley warned that if broadcasters remain in a “slowdown mode” with DTV, then they run “some regulatory risk” of keeping their digital spectrum.

Whether HDTV is broadcasters’ primary DTV goal is also up for debate. Unlike previous NABs, the focus by broadcast equipment vendors at this year’s show was definitely on the Internet and interactive applications, not HDTV production. And there were numerous demonstrations of data broadcasting, which has become a hot topic for broadcasters in the past few months.

Two consortiums of broadcasters, iBlast and the Digital Broadcasters’ Cooperative, have agreed to devote part of their DTV spectrum to data services.

Geocast Network Systems, which plans to market with Thomson a $299 DTV data receiver that it showed at CES 2000, also keeps driving forward with its plans to offer an end-to-end multimedia service. Geocast announced deals for satellite capacity and a new operations facility in Las Vegas.

Triveni Digital, a spinoff of LG Electronics, showed a live demo of datacasting in its booth. The HDTV signal from CBS affiliate KLAS-TV included Internet data that was being broadcast at 700 kilobits per second and decoded by Triveni’s PC-based receiver technology.

Glen Dickson is associate editor with TWICE’s sister publication Broadcasting & Cable.