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NAB Embraces Digital Television Unity

The National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) convention, long a hotbed of debates about a variety of digital TV issues, changed its personality at this year’s show, which was marked by relative calmness and a sense of unity. Finger-pointing last week over DTV was a non-issue.

“No one is talking about whether the standard is the right standard anymore,” said Gary Shapiro, president/CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). “The issues are how to move forward and how do we make it happen in a way that works for everyone. I don’t know if it’s that the standard issue is resolved, that we realize it’s inevitable or the post 9/11 cooperative bliss that still remains.”

Mark Richer, ATSC president, agreed, that the general atmosphere surrounding DTV was much improved compared to previous NAB shows.

“It’s much more positive about digital television,” Richer said. “Terrestrial digital can and will be successful and HDTV is definitely the killer application in everybody’s mind again.”

Shapiro made some headlines himself during an HDTV session, where he backed off from CEA’s hard-line position concerning mandated DTV tuners as an attempt to give action to FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s push to accelerate the DTV transition (see p. 3). Shapiro applauded Powell’s statements, adding that government officials realize they have statutory authority, but they sometimes forget that they have a bully pulpit.

“The transition is important to the country and we want to help in any way we can,” Shapiro said. “So we’re going to go out to the TV set manufacturers and everyone else that is in our constituency that is affected by the transition and ask how far can we and individual companies go to try and achieve what the chairman wants to achieve.”

On the technical side, Richer said there were many positive papers and demonstrations about the technology, including 8-VSB.

“Everybody is fully committed to the VSB standard, and there are new receivers coming out with enhancements that will be backward-compatible, so the consumer is safe,” says Richer. “And the market can move forward. Because that conflict is gone, the electronics manufacturers have more confidence, so they’re building more, and the broadcasters are getting more excited about implementation.”

Given the statements made by Shapiro, Richer and others, it seems that broadcasters and the electronics manufacturers are jointly turning their energies to the third industry player involved in the DTV transition: cable.

“We want to see movement in the other industries,” said Shapiro. “The biggest challenge right now is obviously cable, which is a huge bottleneck in so many ways.”

The other big story at NAB concerned digital radio services. iBiquity Digital and three radio transmitter manufacturers officially introduced IBOC digital radio transmission exciters. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a major step forward for the technology that many radio stations hope would ensure that satellite radio doesn’t eat into their business.

“Everything that a station needs to transmit IBOC is now available,” says Bob Struble, iBiquity Digital president/CEO.

The manufacturers were Harris, Broadcast Electronics and Nautel. The transmission equipment will allow radio stations to transmit near-CD-quality audio on FM and bring FM-quality sound to AM radio stations. Wireless data services also promise to be in the mix. Struble, in fact, says radio is now charting a new course toward becoming a multimedia format.

iBiquity will now focus on rolling out digital radio in six major markets by next CES, when the consumer radio receivers will be introduced. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Miami will be the first.

“Those markets are known for having early adopters and digital and audio enthusiasts,” adds Struble. “We’ll be working with the broadcasters who own the stations in those to get on the air.”

Struble says the average investment for IBOC transmission capabilities is around $75,000, with the low end around $30,000 and the high end upwards of $200,000.

“That will depend on what you have in the station,” he says. “If you have older equipment that might not pass the digital section you might be at the higher end but if you bought equipment in the last 10 years you’ll probably be okay.”

A number of receiver manufacturers have already announced plans to serve the market. Clarion signed on right before NAB to bring digital radio to the automobile and OEM auto market. They join Alpine, Kenwood, Harman Kardon, and Visteon. iBiquity expects DAR receiver introductions at next January’s CES.

Unlike digital TV, which has been bogged down by a number of issues, the digital radio market seems ready for the future. “We think when a lot of AM stations go IBOC they’ll begin programming the niche stations that have gone away, and that’s part of the attraction of satellite radio,” says Struble. “I’m sure the broadcasters hope that digital radio will be an effective defense against satellite radio.”