DTV Primer

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A Little of Everything

December 23, 2007

This week we have that regulatory status report, some comments on the popular media, TV manufacturer realignments, and a couple of equipment reports.

First up is the FCC's regulatory tardiness. All of that FCC discord we've been hearing about is not doing the DTV transition any good at all.

We're waiting for three final rules: 1) the 3rd DTV transition periodic review (technical requirements for TV broadcasters), 2) the FCC's DTV consumer education initiative, and 3) the bi-directional DTV cable interface standards.

1) All this past week TV broadcasters have continued with heavy lobbying on the technical transition requirements. Many broadcasters are now transmitting their digital signal using a side-mount antenna, and their analog signal using a top-mount antenna on the same tower. After Ferbruary 17, 2009, they would either want to continue transmitting their digital signal using the sidemount antenna while they replace their top-mount analog antenna with a new digital antenna (one that would provide full coverage), OR if their final digital channel is the same as their analog channel, switch their digital broadcasts from the digital side-mount to the analog top-mount antenna.

The issue is that the FCC has proposed "Table B" coverage requirements that do not match what the broadcasters would get with their proposed alternative antenna configurations. Maybe the coverage would be smaller, or bulge out in one spot and in in another spot.

The broadcasters are saying this temporary mismatch is better than what would result if the FCC insists on perfect compliance during the run-up to and in the months after the end of the transition. That could be the complete loss of, or significant reduction in the analog signal while they make the switchover in antennas as early as this coming summer.

They also want some flexibility in interference limits with surrounding stations. Plus they want the FCC to allow them to apply now for expanding their area of coverage (end the freeze) so they can buy the appropriate equipment for the transition and be done with it (instead of buying equipment for their current coverage and then upgrading a year later). And they want the FCC to let them simply notify when they make changes for the transition instead of requiring the time-consuming and expensive waiver request process.

In short, they want some flexibility. And whatever the Commission decides, they want a decision soon because time is running out.

2) Regarding the consumer education initiative, the industry is all for drawing out the rulemaking as long as possible. The broadcast lobby in a meeting on the above matter told the FCC they would be talking to them later about the education rules. They want the government to stay out of their marketing. More on that below.

3) On the bi-directional (next-generation) cable interface issue, the cable and consumer electronics industries are still pounding away at each other on which standard the FCC should adopt. No sign yet that the FCC is near making a decision, although Chairman Martin has stated that he would like to have a standard out in time for compliant TVs and boxes to be on shelves before the holiday shopping season one year from now.

Fat chance! (that is, if you believe the TV lobbyists who in the past have said product development cycles take 18-24 months. This of course was back when the FCC was mulling the timing of requiring digital tuners in TVs.)

As part of its final rules that banned the so-called "integrated" cable boxes (that is, boxes that contained the security function along with the navigation function), the FCC said it would give waivers from the ban to cable companies that agreed to convert completely to a digital system before the end of the transition.

Many took them up on that offer, so that they could continue leasing integrated bi-directional boxes to their customers in lieu of using one-way cable boxes with plug-in CableCARDs.

BendBroadband is one such cable company. In their report to the FCC, they outlined progress to converting to digital. More than three-quarters of their subscribers have already switched to digital; BendBroadband no longer offers analog to new subscribers.

They offer four basic digital service tiers:

  • Limited, for $17.95 per month, includes five HD channels (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and Weather) and some SD channels.

  • Family, for $29.50, includes ten HD channels (as well as an array of SD channels).

  • Essentials, $for 42.95, with 25 HD channels and more SD channels.

  • Preferred, for $47.95, with 27 HD channels and even more SD channels.

Of course, if you wanted just the basic $17.95 network channels in HD, plus, for example, the Sci-Fi channel in HD, you would have to order the Essentials package for $42.95, which includes 66 other standard def channels that you didn't want.

If we had a la carte channel pricing, you could order the $17.95 package and tack on a couple of bucks more for the one extra HD channel. But then the cable company would lose out on about $23 extra revenue per month, or $276/year, or $2,760 over a TV's nominal ten-year life (which would buy a very nice replacement TV).

I ran into more evidence that the cable industry is using the transition to digital broadcasts to drive antenna viewers to cable. This canned "news story" ("What is the Digital Television Transition and How Will it Affect You?") was nationally distributed to media via a news release distribution service.

An excerpt:

"More simply put, an old 'analog' TV that still relies on rabbit ears for a picture will go black. The good news is that cable customers can relax. Every TV set connected to cable will continue to display local stations, even after TV broadcasters launch the new transmission format.

Strangely, the source of the document was not given (and no byline), but clearly it was from someone in the cable industry (who obviously didn't want to be identified). The web link given at the end belongs to the industry DTV transition coalition, of which the cable industry association is one of the founding members.

Now that the digital transition is becoming more widely known among mainstream reporters, and the holiday HDTV buying season more than upon us, I'm seeing more stories offering advice on what to look for when buying a new television.

On the New York Times web site there was an December 20 article by Larry Magid. entitled "Today's HDTV, or Next Year's?" (in Personal Tech section). With TV performance improving and prices dropping, the obvious question is to buy now or wait.

Unfortunately, the subject is full of pitfalls even for the "experts" among us (myself included); the obvious is not always the complete truth.

Mr. Magid makes the statement: "For TV watchers, an HDTV with 1,080p is currently more than users really need because even high-definition programs are broadcast at a lower resolution than 1,080p."

One could also argue whether users "really need" an HDTV at all. In any case, high-definition programs have for years been broadcast in "1080i," which is the same resolution as "1080p." CBS and NBC both use the 1080i format, at 30 frames per second. (ABC and Fox are using 1280 x 720, at 60 fps progressive)

Resolution is pixel count--spatial detail. Full-specification high-definition is 1920 pixels across by 1080 pixels down, or 1920x1080.

The term "1080p" is an incomplete format description. It's like a nickname, but it does not tell us the horizontal pixel count, and neither does it tell us the frame rate. These other bits of information are very important.

The "p" at the end signifies "progressive," versus "i" for "interlaced." The label "1080p" signifies that the TV's inputs are capable of accepting a progressive signal, which might be at 60 frames per second, or perhaps also 24 fps for the better sets.

All fixed-pixel displays (essentially everything except traditional CRT displays) convert interlaced inputs to progressive for display on their screens (de-interlacing), and they scale the signal to their native resolution (for example, scaling ABC's 1280 x 720 input to a native 1920 x 1080 screen resolution).

ATSC specifies three broadcast formats for full-specification HD: 1080/60i, 1080/30p, and 1080/24p.

Magid does not seem to understand the full meaning of "1080p," but his readers might well take his advice and buy a large 720p "HD" television, which would be their loss. He should have just said 1080p is where TV technology is moving, and is the most future-proof technology you can buy. He might have added the caveat that larger Full-HD 1920x1080 sets that only have 1080i inputs are still much better than 720p-limited sets.

Now that I've flailed that, and yet not said enough to make sense . . .

PC World had an article that went in the other direction. Excellent advice on selecting a set, but mostly unrealistic. "What to do when you're ready to buy an HDTV" by Becky Waring.

She says go to a specialty home-theater store with ideal viewing conditions (great idea, but most people go to big-box stores). She says make sure the sets are adjusted properly, then have the staff input different types of programming through the sets including standard def and high-def. Run your own regular DVDs through them, as well as Blu-ray discs . . . Display this programming side by side through competing brands. You get the point.

Sony has announced that they are dropping their award-winning line of rear-projection HDTVs, joining a parade of other manufacturers that have already done the same thing with their critically acclaimed RPTVs. If you want a Sony RPTV, run to the store before existing stocks run out.

Sony was number 2 behind Samsung in this category. Samsung has shown no indications they will follow suit in the near term, but the trend is growing. LCDs are getting bigger and cheaper.

Sony will continue to build its front-projectors, which are not threatened by the smaller-screen flat-panel competition.

Blu-ray Profile 1.1 players are now among us. Just about a week ago Sony released a firmware upgrade for their PlayStation 3 which converted that BD player to Profile 1.1 (picture-in-picture capability). And then there's Panasonic's new DMP-BD30.

Home Theater magazine has posted a review of the DMP-BD30. They like it a lot.

"While I found no compelling advantages to the Panasonic's higher Java profile level than current competing players, that may well change as more fully-featured discs hit the market in January of 2008. Its lack of onboard Dolby TrueHD decoding, however, will be more significant to readers who lack an AV receiver or pre/pro with this capability and, like me, value basic audio and video quality more than special features. But the latter are undoubtedly important to the wider market.

"Still, the ability to get both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio off the disc and into your life is a real plus. You can expect to see this in future players, but with an appropriate AV receiver or pre-pro, it's available from the DMP-BD30 now.

"And the Panasonic's video quality is second to none. HD video on a packaged disc is the most important video development of the new millennium, and no player I've tested, so far, does it any better than this one."

The discussion about the player's advanced lossless audio playback capabilities was especially interesting. Worth a read.

The pressures on digital TV makers to improve performance at ever lower price points is driving new partnerships in the industry. The latest is the alliance between Sharp and Toshiba.

Toshiba will start buying a substantial portion of its LCD panels from Sharp, which will increase begining in March 2010 when Sharp's 10th generation LCD plant comes on line. Under the terms of the alliance, Sharp will start buying Toshiba's system LSIs for its LCD TVs. This agreement draws on the strengths of each company. (LSI is large scale integrated circuit)

Sharp recently reached a similar agreement with Pioneer. Pioneer will buy smaller LCD panels to complement its larger screen plasma line, while Toshiba will be getting larger LCD panels.

Sony and Samsung have had an LCD partnership for some time. Hitachi is reported to be close to a partnership deal with Matsushita (Panasonic).

On the converter box front, a box built by the Chinese manufacturer Sansonic has won NTIA approval, making it eligible for the coupon program.

That brings the approved box total to seven. Philips has three out (two Philco brand and one with the Magnavox label), two from DigitalStream, one from LG (Zenith), and now the Sansonic box. Still waiting for the Samsung box to be approved.

And finally, DirecTV has agreed to carry the primary local HD channel for PBS stations in most all of the markets in which it carries local HD channels. It currently carries high-definition local programming in 68 TV markets. That will keep going up as its satellite capacity increases.

There was no commitment to carry any secondary multi-cast PBS channels.

Until next week . . .

I will try the IBM-administered converter-box-coupon request site to see if it's up before January 1. Beyond that, CES 2008 fever starts.