The verbal fistfight over the U.S. digital television transition hit the floor of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee yesterday, as feuding factions appealed to congressional lawmakers to heed their varying positions on the new broadcasting system.
In fact, the only point on which most of the testifiers agreed was that the Federal Communications Commission's mandated 2006 deadline for the end of analog broadcasting will have to be delayed due to a slower-than-expected adoption rate of DTV receivers in the market.
While the adoption of DTV-ready monitors (without tuners) has been strong, according to representatives of the Consumer Electronics Association, consumer electronics manufacturers have been slow to deliver digital off-air receivers due to development snafus and still unsettled standards that make it difficult to ramp up full-scale unit production, manufacturers testified.
Broadcasters, meanwhile, said they are reluctant to ramp up production of high-definition television programming due to the high cost and sparse amount of receivers in the field on which to view it.
System detractors, led by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, denounced the 8-level Vestigial Side Band (8-VSB) modulation scheme included in the current Federal Communications Commission-approved DTV standard for radio frequency (RF) reception.
In its testimony before the panel, Sinclair said "the DTV transition has stalled," largely because of poor reception issues caused by 8-VSB, which is prone to multipath interference issues that make it hard to receive signals with indoor "rabbit ear" antennas. The format also is not as flexible in receiving signals in mobile applications, Sinclair said.
Lashing back, Tom Campbell, Ken Cranes Home Entertainment City corporate director, said digital television sales at retail have generated considerable consumer excitement and sales, with DTV monitor sales better than half of all big-screen TV business and receiver sales on a gradual upswing.
"I'm tired of seeing the consumer bombared by statements from Sinclair that we have a television system that doesn't work. It does work," Campbell declared, adding that better than 68 percent of his store's big screen TV sales are digital-ready sets.
Proponents of the current standard said that 8-VSB works today and is being enhanced to overcome any limitations in multipath or mobile reception capability.
But Sinclair said that confusion over the shortcomings of 8-VSB is keeping some broadcasters from delivering digital television signals and consumers from purchasing DTV receivers.
Committee chairman W. J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) lamented the ongoing standards debate and warned broadcasters who fail to deliver quality DTV broadcasts that they run the risk of losing the spectrum given to them by Congress.
Tauzin cited two "deal breaking" scenarios that could force Congress to reclaim digital spectrum from offending broadcasters.
- Leasing or selling off any portion of the 6MHz digital spectrum at the sacrifice of HDTV broadcasting.
- Failing to show the American public HDTV to enable consumers to decide whether to support it by buying HDTV-capable sets. "It was my understanding that Americans were going to see it," he said.
Some have speculated that Sinclair and other broadcasters favor the COFDM modulation scheme used in the European DVB-T digital transmission system because it will better serve ancillary datacasting services, which some broadcasters may use to derive incremental revenue by metering a portion of their 6MHz digital channel spectrum.
Sinclair's spokesman said his company's primary concern is to deliver digital television programming, but he added that the company would offer ancillary services if it served the needs of the community.
Tauzin warned any parties supporting the 8-VSB-modulation scheme included in the current DTV standard that "the development of any systems that don't reach consumers" is also not in the deal. "No one should have to buy a specific kind of set for a specific location of the country they are living in," he said. "Consumers should be able to move around the country and get the same reception quality on the same set."
Tauzin, who is also the Deputy House Whip, scheduled oversight hearings on HDTV reception issues as a result of the continued controversy surrounding the modulation scheme included in the current broadcast standard.
Gary Shapiro, CEA president, cautioned subcommittee members that adding a second modulation system to the DTV standard -- as Sinclair has proposed -- would be difficult to implement and expensive for manufacturers and consumers. It would also render obsolete all digital TV tuners sold to date for the U.S. market.
Shapiro admonished television broadcasters that failed to deliver HDTV, and even standard-definition digital, television programming in their markets. "If there is one key to a successful DTV transition," he said, "it is a steady supply of high-quality program content. This is the first law of our industry: Product sales will only take off when sufficient content is available to consumers."
In contrast, he noted, non-broadcast DTV content from digital satellite systems, as well as digital cable operators, is increasing.
Also criticized by CEA members was the National Association of Broadcasters' suggestion that as an effort to increase market penetration of sets that can receive digital stations, all future television sets be made to receive both analog and digital signals.
Commenting on the NAB proposal, a representative of Thomson Consumer Electronics said: "On its face, such a regressive proposal stands in opposition to the most fundamental reason why Congress established a DTV transition at all, which was to give consumers sufficient time to purchase, at steadily declining prices, the necessary equipment to receive DTV services so as not to impose unnecessary costs."