DTV Primer

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Denon, Discovery, House, Senate, FCC

July 29, 2007

High-priced Blu-ray players and a lot of talk -- that's what I have for you this week.

First, the toys: Denon has announced their debut of a couple of Blu-ray players with all the bells and whistles. Coming this fall for a mere $2,000 (and one for less).

Keep in mind that Denon is still selling a standard DVD player for upwards of $4000 list, so for them and their followers, $2000 for high-def has got to be a bargain.

The players are the DVD-3800BDCI "Player" and the DVD-2500BTC "Transport." Both have BD-ROM Profile 1 version 1.1--that is to say, the BD Java interactive features that will be required for all new BD players released after October 31 (including picture-in-picture). Denon is the first to announce that capability, so they're blowing their horn.

No specific release date was mentioned (just "fall"), so another manufacturer may actually be the first to hit the market with interactive BD Java (e.g. Sharp or Samsung).

The $1999 3800BDCI includes the "acclaimed" 10-bit Silicon Optix Realta chipset (actually supposed to be excellent) with upscaling to 1080p. So good video quality.

For audio, the player decodes Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, and can output both 7.1-channel analog signals and PCM audio via HDMI output. HDMI is version 1.3.

The DVD-2500BTCI "Transport" will natively output an HD audio bit-stream to a connected receiver via HDMI for decoding. Denon would be happy to sell you an A/V receiver with HDMI 1.3 that can decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, or you can buy somebody else's.

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The Discovery Channel people, in their FCC comments on cable carriage of broadcast signals, disclosed that they plan to launch HD simulcasts of four of its networks -- Discovery Channel HD, TLC HD, Animal Planet HD and The Science Channel HD. This happens "later this year." Next year Discovery Communications will do the same for another two of their channels.

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The House hearing on FCC oversight last Tuesday brought us little news about the transition, but more about how the bandwidth freed up by the transition will be used.

The auctioning off of the radio wave spectrum that will be vacated at the end of the transition was largely the impetus that moved Congress to setting a hard date for the transition. On the day after February 17, 2009, TV channels 52 through 69 will no longer be used by TV broadcasters -- the so-called 700 MHz band.

It's prime wireless bandwidth because of that wavelength's favorable propagation characteristics (right through buildings, etc.). Auctioning off that bandwidth to prospective wireless service providers is expected to net the government somewhere between $10 - $20 billion.

Congress is anxious to maximize their take, mostly because they've already spent the money. The FCC has more idealistic expectations -- establishing consumer-friendly wireless services. Idealism and greed clashed, of course. Which will trump? Like waiting for the last Harry Potter book.

FCC Chairman Martin is planning to require any wireless phone service provider to allow handset portability. In other words, you buy your expensive cell phone (e.g. iPhone) and then decide you want to change carriers -- under the FCC's plans, you could use your old handset with the new service provider. He would also permit consumers to use their cell phone applications on any phone and with any service provider.

Some business-friendly Republican members were critical of the FCC's decision to impose that condition on the use of that bandwidth, suggesting that potential bidders would pay less or not bid at all.

The FCC's Martin responded that consumers (i.e. the American public) would like the condition.

Chairman Ed Markey compared the current wireless situation with the old AT&T telephone monopoly, where everyone was forced to lease a plain black rotary-dial telephone from Ma Bell. (Older readers will know.)

That's mostly what the House hearing was about. A few of the opening statements by Committee members and witnesses raised the DTV transition and the need for public education, but no serious interest.

FCC Chairman Martin's written statement revealed that last week they "adopted" proposed rules "on several DTV education initiatives . . . on requiring broadcasters, multichannel video programming distributors, retailers and manufacturers to take certain actions to publicize the digital transition." We won't know the specifics until the proposal is "released" (expected soon). A few weeks ago Martin mentioned a few of the expected items in a letter to Congressman Dingell, including mandatory PSAs for broadcasters.

Commissioner Adelstein's written statement included this bit:

"I have recommended establishing a clear chain of command by creating a Federal DTV Transition Task Force. While the NTIA is principally charged with administering the converter box program, the FCC's technical and consumer outreach expertise makes us especially well-suited to spearhead a national consumer education initiative. In a taskforce, the two agencies could work collaboratively and dedicate staff resources to develop a unified federal message about the DTV transition, and to inform consumers about options they have to continue receiving broadcast programming after February 17, 2009."

This illustrates how little progress the government has made toward educating the public about the transition: they're still thinking about how they could do it.

Here's the link for viewing or downloading the archived webcast of the hearing. Requires Windows MediaPlayer (the latest version of QuickTime also works).

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The Senate DTV consumer education hearing on Thursday was no more encouraging.

Committee Chairman Dan Inouye cited a poll that showed 60% of Americans knew nothing about the transition (at least). When NTIA's John Kneuer and the FCC's Seidel ticked off all the wonderful education measures they were taking, Inouye used the poll results to prove how ineffective their efforts were.

They responded by saying the main effort was going to be conducted by the industry, and after that ramped up, the numbers would be more positive. Other Senators asked when the industry's public service announcements would begin, but all the witnesses could (or would) tell them was "closer to the end of the transition."

The industry DTV education coalition has in the past suggested their campaign would not start until next year.

Committee Vice-Chairman Ted Stevens (83 years old) pretty much ignored the topic of the hearing and instead, in a halting and sometimes incoherent speech, complained about the FCC's consumer-protection conditions on the wireless bandwidth auction. At one point he suggested that the end of the DTV transition might be postponed if doing that would increase auction revenues. In the next moment he worried about villagers in rural Alaska not getting the word about converter boxes.

It was Stevens who in late-2005 effectively nixed consumer education measures in the DTV Transition Act, and did the same in 2006 when such measures were again proposed.

A little later in the hearing, Senator John Sununu reassured everyone in earshot that they had certainly all moved past any discussion of postponing the hard transition date. Then he moved to his questions, noting that the easiest way to reach TV viewers with word of the transition is with TV public service announcements. He lamented that there were no industry witnesses there to tell them WHEN those PSAs were set to begin.

Chairman Inouye later announced that TV industry witnesses would attend another hearing in September. I'm thinking their non-attendance at Thursday's hearing was quite intentional; they're not anxious to spread the word, since they're not yet ready for the transition themselves. No embarrassing questions to answer if they're not there.

Sununu noted that the most recent figure they had been given for the percentage of consumers relying on over-the-air broadcasts was from 2004. Neither NTIA's Kneuer nor FCC's Seidel could tell him if more up-to-date numbers were available.

Senator Claire McCaskill (Missouri) reiterated that the best way to reach TV-viewers was via TV PSAs, and asked Seidel about the FCC's proposed PSA requirements.

Seidel said the proposed rule on DTV education efforts had been adopted but not released, and as she had not been involved in developing them, she would have to go back to the FCC's Media Bureau with that query. Very strange that Ms. Seidel is the Chief of the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, and yet did not work on those proposed consumer education regulations.

McCaskill then took aim at the NTIA, asking if the digital-to-analog converter boxes (due to hit store shelves in five months) had been field tested yet. Kneuer waffled, eventually admitted that development is ongoing (but manufacturers have told him they would be ready). McCaskill is concerned that some consumers might get their boxes and find they don't work properly.

NTIA's Kneuer continued to say he didn't know anything about the industry Coalition's upcoming voluntary PSA program, notwithstanding that NTIA has partnered with them. Kneuer is a political appointee -- Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Communications and Information -- and talked the talk.

Seidel continued to say she would have to take questions back to the FCC, since she didn't know very many of the answers.

And then the rest of the witnesses had their turn: the AARP, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. All of these are lobby organizations, and all preached the need for more targeted consumer outreach, if only more government funding (i.e. grants) could be made available to organizations such as their own.

An expected disappointment. Here's the link to watch the archived webcast of the hearing. The Senate uses RealPlayer; you may have to open RealPlayer and open the linked page from within RealPlayer depending on how your computer is set up.

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The FCC's monthly open meeting will be held on July 31. There are no agenda items on digital TV matters. They will discuss the proposed rules for the auction of the 700MHz radio frequencies that will become available at the end of the digital TV transition.