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Flawed 8-VSB likely to get NAB nod

Broadcasters will meet this week and next in an attempt to achieve some consensus on the key modulation component of the digital transmission standard. Sources expect the industry to come out of the meetings backing 8-VSB, but that doesn't mean the issue will be settled.

A long-awaited report by the National Association of Broadcasters and the Association for Maximum Service Television was sent to broadcasters last week. The "phone-book-sized" report, as some described it, is mostly filled with results of engineering tests conducted in Washington, Baltimore and Cleveland.

Sources say the report finds big flaws with both the Advanced Television Systems Committee's 8-VSB and COFDM, the standard used in Europe and Japan and supported by Sinclair Broadcasting and NBC. 8-VSB is the standard the industry selected and the FCC adopted, but Sinclair began complaining three years ago that 8-VSB didn't allow for adequate indoor reception and that it couldn't handle the mobile applications that have become increasingly attractive to broadcasters looking for a second revenue stream. Since then, broadcasters have been fighting over which standard is best and delaying the transition to digital in the process.

On Jan. 10, the steering committee assembled by NAB and MSTV will meet in Washington to discuss the report and plan for the next day's all-industry summit at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington. Both meetings are closed to the press.

The boards of directors of both NAB and MSTV will then travel to Carlsbad, Calif., over the weekend, where they will hold a joint board meeting on Monday, Jan. 15, where they intend to hammer out a position acceptable to both associations.

"It's going to be uncomfortable no matter how it comes out," said one lobbyist. "It's bad enough doing this as an industry standard. It's horrible doing it as an industrial governmental policy."

The broadcasters' actions will have a lot of bearing on other groups studying the DTV modulation issue.

The Advanced Television Systems Committee delayed a final report to its executive committee on the current standard's performance in order to incorporate the NAB/ MSTV findings. The ATSC report also will include a Canadian study finished last month which concludes that 8-VSB, also used in that country, needs improvement to be acceptable for indoor reception.

The ATSC by the end of January is planning to ask for its own proposals to enhance 8-VSB so it will work better with indoor and mobile reception. ATSC also is planning to assess COFDM.

Finally, the FCC is conducting tests to evaluate whether 8-VSB receivers are improving sufficiently to alleviate concerns about indoor reception. Last month, NxtWave Communications, one of the leading makers of DTV receiver chips, unveiled its latest version. The new chip makes significant progress in alleviating indoor reception problems and "multipath" interference created when TV signals reflect off buildings and terrain and create ghost images, company officials said.

Separately, the NAB is expected to spend a lot of time on digital TV issues at its annual board meeting Jan. 13-17, including digital must-carry.

At press time, the FCC was planning to introduce a rulemaking Jan. 11 on issues surrounding digital must-carry, such as channel capacity and program exclusivity rules. Last week, NAB President Eddie Fritts asked the FCC to stop delaying its decision on the entire question of whether cable operators should be forced to carry both digital and analog TV stations.

Copy-protection issues also are expected to take up the NAB board's time, from royalty fees that radio stations may have to pay for streaming their signal on the Web to protecting digital content.

Finally, the radio board will discuss low-power FM, and satellite and Internet radio as well as the FCC's proceeding on how to define radio markets.