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Broadcasters, MSOs Stall HDTV Deployments

HD what? In a form of tacit "cooperation" never envisioned by the FCC, squabbling among TV broadcasters, MSOs and equipment manufacturers has combined to keep the transition to digital TV in low gear.

Roughly two-and-a-half years after the Federal Communications Commission pushed private industry to agree on a technical standard, there's little high-definition television for consumers to watch and few ways for them to watch it.

The near-term prospects for HDTV are likely to dip even further in coming months, as the standard comes under fire from a growing crowd of broadcasters. Even its supporters appear resigned to an Advanced Television Systems Committee standard that will remain in limbo for a good part of 2000.

As a result, there's no sign that cable carriage of HDTV signals will have a significant impact on the business plans of cable operators for the balance of 2000.

Whether that picture changes in 2000 will depend largely on the resolution of the regulatory and business issues that continue to block widespread adoption of digital TV.

As of late March, cable operators were passing through the digital signals of only two of about 120 broadcasters to get digital signals on the air.

Among cable networks, operators said, Home Box Office-which provides a 24-hour HDTV feed-and Showtime have the most high-definition programming. As for occasional HDTV programming, Madison Square Garden Network in New York broadcasts some sports events in that format.

Even the handful of cable operators that have concluded digital-carriage agreements have moved slowly, if at all, to implement those deals.

AT & T Broadband-the first major MSO to reach multiple HDTV-carriage agreements, with NBC and Fox Broadcasting Co.-won't begin passing those signals through until sometime this summer at the earliest.

Only Time Warner Cable has begun carrying a broadcaster's digital signal in more than one market-the CBS Corp. signal wherever both the broadcaster and the MSO have gone digital.

AT & T Broadband-which arguably should have been one of the first cable MSOs to carry broadcasters'digital signals, given its aggressive rollout of digital cable-is still testing Motorola Broadband Communications Sector's sidecar adapter for its "DCT" series digital set-top boxes, a company spokeswoman said.

Those boxes won't be commercially deployed before this summer at the earliest, depending on the results of those tests.

It's not as if consumers are clamoring for cable carriage of digital-TV signals, though. "We've gotten almost no calls" from consumers asking about digital TV, an executive with one of the top five cable MSOs said. "There is no demand."

Despite widely held assumptions that the FCC has statutory authority to set digital must-carry requirements, even proponents of digital must-carry within the commission have conceded there's no clear mandate.

"There's the question of, Can we do it?'as well as, Should we do it?'" one senior FCC official said. "The statute is vague on whether [the FCC] can do it during the transition."

In part, some cable executives have said, the problem of cable carriage of digital-TV signals is technical. Until FCC chairman William Kennard forced cable- and consumer-electronics-industry officials to agree on a digital interface, there was no elegant way of receiving HDTV signals passed through cable plants.

Even that February agreement between the two industries is filled with holes, executives from both industries conceded, including in the specification for connecting digital-cable boxes to digital-TV receivers.

All that's in place for now is an RF interface that envisions a direct connection between cable plant and a digital-TV receiver using coaxial cable.

But that specification includes the as-yet-unfinished POD (point of deployment) interface for conditional access, and it requires that HDTV-receiver manufacturers build QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) demodulators, as well as VSB (vestigial sideband) demodulators, into their sets.

As a result, few manufacturers, if any, are likely to have anything that can be termed a "cable-ready" HDTV receiver before the 2001 holiday-sales season, consumer-electronics executives who took part in the negotiations conceded.

It's doubtful that manufacturers will have the interface in receivers this year, one consumer-electronics-industry official said shortly after the agreement was reached, adding, "Not at least according to what's in this agreement."

"We didn't want a situation where we were building set-top-compatible'digital TVs," the same executive bluntly said of the decision to focus first on an RF interface. "This is going to be one of a family" of digital interfaces.

A digital interface based on a 1394 connector "is the next step," the official said, although he called expectations of a quick agreement on a 1394-based interface "total bull. There's no agreement on what 1394 really is."

Broadcasters and cable operators have both pointed to the difficulties in getting a digital-interface specification as one more reason to hold off as long as possible on investing heavily in digital TV.

This apparently had a huge impact on HBO's efforts to get carriage agreements-apart from sister company Time Warner Cable-for its HDTV feed.

"One thing and one thing only" has held back other operators, HBO senior vice president Bob Zitter said of HDTV carriage talks: "The lack of an interface."

HBO, Zitter noted, is carrying d.more high-definition programming than all of the broadcast networks combined.

Roughly 60 percent of the movies carried on the HDTV feed were originated in high-definition, with the remainder of the programming schedule filled out with standard-definition programming that's upconverted to HDTV.

Of the major broadcast networks, only CBS has made a significant investment in HDTV-program origination-12 to 15 hours per week of primetime series and occasional sports.

NBC has limited its investment in HDTV programming to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the occasional movie special. ABC Inc. is showing only occasional movies and other special events in HDTV. And Fox has shown no inclination to do anything more than 480p (progressive) standard-definition programming.

One broadcast industry executive who has been active in Washington lobbying on digital TV implicitly blamed broadcasters for the failure of cable operators to sign HDTV-carriage agreements.

"If broadcasters don't have a unique audience [based on more than simulcasting National Television Systems Committee programming] there's no reason for cable to carry them," he said. "They've got a window of opportunity. If they don't move more quickly [to adopt HDTV], cable and satellite will move beyond them."

But neither ABC nor NBC, in fact, is likely to build on their limited HDTV lineups while there's still a chance that the FCC might revise the standard, senior executives at both networks have said in recent months.

Both networks have quietly begun to lay the groundwork for renewed arguments in favor of revisions.

While it's still unlikely that the FCC will scrap the standard in favor of a different set of technical specifications, it appears to be less of a long shot than it was earlier this year, when the commission rejected a petition from Sinclair Broadcast Group to reopen the standard.

The fact that there's a groundswell of support for at least re-examining the real-world performance of the HDTV technical specifications was evident in late March, when a newly formed Advanced Television Systems Committee panel met to consider possible modifications to the standard. The panel will take up to six months to make its recommendations to the ATSC executive committee.

Comments from senior management at both NBC and ABC represented a subtle but significant shift in both networks'thinking in recent months. Some ABC and NBC network executives have grumbled over the last year about flaws in the ATSC standard-primarily 8-VSB modulation. But until recently, neither network appeared to be willing to scrap all or parts of the standard and start over.

The NBC field tests-with some participation by ABC-in and around Washington, D.C., pit the 8-VSB modulation against COFDM (code-orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing), used both in Europe's Digital Video Broadcasting standard and Japan's proposed Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting - Terrestrial (ISDB-T) standard.

The tests, which were expected to run about four weeks, were designed to compare current 8-VSB receiving equipment with COFDM receivers developed for 6-megahertz terrestrial-broadcast channels, NBC senior vice president for broadcast and network engineering Peter Smith said.

"It's a reasonable expectation that today, we should be able to get a DTV signal anyplace we can get a reasonable NTSC signal," Smith said. He suggested that mobile applications represent a secondary concern, although NBC is interested in providing signals for services aimed at "portable" devices, rather than "mobile" devices.

"You might be able to use 8-VSB in a portable environment," Smith said, although he quickly added, "It wouldn't necessarily be the best solution," given the expected "circuit size and power drain" of 8-VSB-based portable HDTV receivers.

NBC has already passed on to FCC commissioner Susan Ness the results of earlier tests in Philadelphia. But the Washington tests-encompassing signals broadcast from the model HDTV station to 70 outdoor and 70 indoor locations-represent "a much bigger testing program," Smith said.

The test results will form the core of the network's comments to be filed as part of the commission's biennial review of the HDTV transition. "We want to determine whether we have a reception problem that will take a long time to resolve," Ness said.

The tests were to focus on multipath problems and "how many stations can be received from one antenna," Smith said. NBC also hoped to create simulation models that can be used later to test HDTV-receiver improvements.

If the tests confirm what amounts to a fatal flaw in 8-VSB modulation, NBC is unlikely to call for a U.S. adoption of DVB. Instead, NBC is "very interested in the system that has been developed in Japan."

While ABC won't have a direct role in the tests, the network at a minimum has agreed to supply some material that will be used in the testing. There have been no indications, however, that ABC will sign onto whatever comments NBC later files with the FCC.

ABC's agenda, in fact, appears less clear-cut, with one senior executive referring to the possibility of "some underlying defects [in the ATSC standard] that may or may not be fixable over time. The comments that 8-VSB can improve over time are accurate, but not sufficient. There will be improvements, but there are fundamental shortfalls that we will not be able to engineer around."

NBC and ABC recently cited that uncertainty as one reason for not investing more heavily in digital TV in general and HDTV in particular.