Test Lab Gets NAB Nod

Break out the oscilloscopes; broadcasters are opening their own research and development center. Well, almost. After much discussion at its winter meeting in La Quinta, Calif., last week, the board of the National Association of Broadcasters said it would provide $2 million a year for the next three years to get the so-called broadcast lab up and running.

But the funding is contingent on the lab proponents' delivering on their promise to come up with another $2 million a year from consumer-electronics and broadcast-equipment manufacturers and another $1 million a year from individual broadcasters.

And before the proponents can cash any NAB checks, they and the NAB must also work through how the lab will be governed and what it will work on, said NAB President Eddie Fritts. The NAB Executive Committee will form a working group to address those issues.

The lab proposal emerged from the Association for Maximum Service Television, a long-standing group of major broadcasters that focuses on spectrum-management and technology issues. MSTV President David Donovan presented the proposal last Sunday and waited until Tuesday to hear that the NAB had approved it. The joint TV and radio board reconvened Wednesday to give the final blessing.

Approval was never seriously in doubt because MSTV and the NAB have many members in common. MSTV Chairman Gary Chapman is the leading proponent. He has worked for nearly a decade to create the lab, although he does not currently sit on the NAB board.

"They are making a significant investment in the future of terrestrial digital broadcasting," Donovan said. "It's clear the broadcast industry is stepping up to the plate."

The funding represents a shift in how broadcasters think of their own technology, he said. "Up to now, broadcasters have dealt with technological issues on an ad hoc basis. The lab will allow it to deal with them on a systematic basis. In the long run, it will be less expensive, it will accelerate the standards-setting process, and it will allow for strategic planning and leadership."

Although the list of projects remains to be settled with NAB, Donovan said the lab will, at least in the beginning, "focus on the basics": figuring out how to improve reception of the 8-VSB digital television signal. The rollout of digital TV service has been slowed by the 8-VSB digital transmission standard, which proved less rugged in actual use than it had been in the lab. Broadcasters hope that smart tuners and improved antennas will make stations' digital coverage as least as good as their analog coverage, perhaps even allowing mobile reception in cars.