ATSC Eyes Digital TV's Future

Most broadcasters are fixated on the digital transition deadline of Feb. 17, 2009. But the head of the U.S. digital television standards body isn't paying much attention to that date.

Advanced Television Systems Committee President Mark Richer and his ATSC membership are more interested in digital television's future, when local stations will be able to do more than simply deliver high-definition and standard-def multicast linear programming to consumers. Although he has been involved in the digital TV movement since working on the FCC's Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (ACATS) back in the late 1980s, Richer isn't viewing the next two months as a frantic countdown.


“ATSC, and my own work, is looking past [the DTV transition date] already,” Richer says. “We're focused on mobile/handheld, non-real-time delivery and the next generation of ATSC services.”

The U.S. digital TV system got a big boost late last month when the ATSC approved a preliminary, or “candidate,” standard—ATSC-Mobile/Handheld, or ATSC-M/H—for a mobile DTV system that will allow local stations to broadcast to cellphones and other portable devices.

By using a new digital exciter that is backward-compatible with the existing 8-VSB (vestigial sideband) transmission system currently used for DTV, ATSC-M/H will allow a mobile DTV stream to be broadcast within a station's digital channel without interfering with existing standard- or high-definition program services. The cost to implement mobile DTV is relatively low, running $250,000 or less per station for the new exciter and supporting encoders and multiplexing gear.

Through application software specifications, the candidate standard also includes support for new interactive TV applications, such as audience voting, through an optional Internet connection on the mobile receiver. It will also allow stations to deploy new data broadcasting services such as providing real-time navigation data for in-vehicle use, and news and sports highlights in on-demand form to consumers.

A final ATSC standard is expected in the second or third quarter of next year, which makes it possible that ATSC-M/H-compliant products will hit retail stores in late 2009. Handset manufacturers, including ATSC-M/H developers LG Electronics and Samsung and car audio supplier Kenwood, will demonstrate working ATSC-M/H prototypes in partnership with broadcasters at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month. The standards body has already crafted a new “ATSC Mobile” logo that manufacturers can use to promote their mobile DTV products at CES.

In the near term, Richer expects the Feb. 17 switch-off of analog broadcasts (excluding low-power stations) to go relatively smoothly, echoing comments made by former FCC and ACATS chairman Dick Wiley at the B&C/Multichannel News OnScreen Media Summit in New York last week. He notes that the federally subsidized converter box program, aimed at the roughly 10%-15% of households that rely on over-the-air analog TV, has been going well, as have broadcasters' efforts to raise DTV awareness and make last-minute tweaks to their DTV transmission plants.

Not that Richer isn't expecting some problems in what he calls “such a major undertaking.” One such issue on Richer's mind is that not all DTV viewers understand they'll need to re-scan their converter boxes or DTV sets after Feb. 17 to keep up with stations that are switching their DTV channel assignments as part of the analog switch-off.

Richer also acknowledges that the FCC and the broadcast industry probably haven't put enough emphasis on the need for some consumers to upgrade their indoor or outdoor antennas to receive all the DTV signals in their market. Some households that are currently watching fuzzy pictures from inferior analog reception won't pick up digital signals at all, unless they reposition or replace their existing antennas.

Richer notes that the so-called “cliff effect” issue goes back to the early days of DTV in the late '90s, when some broadcasters concerned about DTV reception argued to switch from the U.S. 8-VSB modulation scheme to the European COFDM (Coded Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) system.

“It doesn't matter what digital system you pick, you'll still have a cliff effect,” Richer notes. “Things go off and on; that's the way it works. It's a different experience from the way analog degrades, and when it fails, it's a hard failure. That's one of the challenges, and another area where we need to educate consumers and retailers.”

Richer says that broadcasters and retailers are now focused on the antenna issue, and he has been encouraged by seeing more antennas on recent trips to consumer electronics retailers.


On balance, Richer is impressed by both the dramatic improvements in DTV receiver and display technology in the past 10 years and the rapid adoption of HDTV programming in the past few years. The ATSC is now looking ahead to the next generation of HDTV, and considering how the standard might be able to support 3D HD or true 1080-line-progressive in 60-frame-per-second broadcasts in the future.

“When you put it in context, it's amazing how it has advanced,” Richer says. “If you ask most people who were involved in the development of HDTV, even the most bullish ones like me, even we can't believe how great the display technology has gotten at the consumer level.”

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