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LCD/LED Technology; FCC Stuff

April 6, 2008

How long has our "new" digital ATSC TV standard been gestating? The Advanced Television Systems Committee is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year! It's been a long time coming, and it's still evolving.

Dolby Laboratories, Inc. and SIM2 Multimedia debuted a new 46" LCD prototype at the end of March. What made the set special was the LED backlight; almost all LCD TVs still use a fluorescent backlight which provides an even white light across the whole picture.

The Dolby/SIM2 prototype's backlight is made up of 1838 separate white LEDs (light emitting diodes), which by my calculations would be on the order of about a 57 x 32 array for the 16:9 display. Individual LEDs back-illuminate their portion of the screen from full-off (for black parts of the picture) to full-on (bright whites).

That gives rise to what Dolby describes as an infinite contrast ratio. No-light blacks and 4000 cd/meter whites, which is about what you would see in real-life.

Better depth, detail, wider color gamut. This is good stuff!

LED backlights have other benefits over fluorescents: potentially lower power consumption (and less heat), no heavy metals, and they can be thinner, if you like that.

The local-dimming LED backlight technology was originally developed by a company called BrightSide Technologies, which built high-performance (and high-priced) displays for scientific and medical applications. Dolby bought the company about a year ago (see my report) with the intention of developing the technology for mass-market consumer applications (i.e. HDTV) and then licensing the technology to TV manufacturers. Dolby dubbed the technology HDR (high dynamic range).

Dolby's partner SIM2 may market a version of the prototype at a high price point to select customers. (I hope they make it a little more attractive first.) Expect to see major manufacturers announcing sets after efficient mass-production techniques have been developed.

Think more prototypes from several manufacturers at next January's Consumer Electronics Show, and I would be surprised if affordable production HDTVs incorporating the technology are not announced the following year (January, 2010).

LED backlights for LCD sets are where the industry is headed. With Pioneer marketing high-contrast (& high-priced) plasma sets, the LCD folks cannot afford to stick with incremental performance boosts.

Apple has started to convert all its computer screens from fluorescent to LED backlights (although not local dimming/HDR).

Samsung already is selling a low-technology LED-backlight LCD set (that performs better than their fluorescent backlight sets). We can expect them to continue along that path.

Sharp has hinted that LCD sets coming out of its 10th-generation LCD plant will have contrast ratios obtainable only through LED local-dimming backlight technology. That plant opens March 2010.

There are still technical challenges remaining, however. As LEDs age, their brightness decreases. Since they age at different rates, this can mean uneven lighting and color shifts. I assume these problems will be overcome, just as the difficulties with OLED will eventually be resolved. Throw enough money at something . . . The only question is timing.

One of the requirements for broadcasters on when and how they have to complete the build-out of their final digital facilities is to submit a report detailing their plans, including a timeline. These reports were due February 19, so I thought it would be interesting to read a few of them and tell you what they said.

The FCC in a recent notice concerning this report (Form 387 - Transition Status Report) said this:

"The data collected by these forms will be made available to the public on the Commission's Web Site:, allowing the Commission, industry, and the public to track the progress of the DTV transition."

I searched for these forms in all the usual places in and around the FCC's web site and could not find them. I sent an e-mail query to the designated person for this program at the FCC and have not received a response.

When they finally show up, I'll let you know and we can all read about our local broadcasters' progress (or lack thereof).

At the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee meeting on Friday, the chief of the FCC's Engineering and Technology Office mentioned that they had just released a 2-page consumer publication Antennas and Digital Television. It's good and useful for anyone connecting a digital TV to an antenna for the first time, or having digital reception problems. (this also of course applies to people getting a digital-to-analog converter box)

While there is no difference between "analog" and "digital" antennas, there is a difference in the way the picture degrades as the signal gets weaker. When a broadcast signal gets weak, you will still see a (snowy) picture on an analog TV, whereas you will see either a perfect picture or no picture on a digital set. And because signal strength is seldom perfectly constant (it varies up and down with wind effects, etc.), if the signal strength is marginal, the digital picture will alternate between 1) perfect, 2) frozen or pixelated, and 3) gone.

In addition to this antenna publication, there are almost 20 other DTV-related publications available.

On Monday the FCC hosted a DTV education workshop to consider the problems of reaching low-income households, and on Friday, the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee met (focused on DTV education).

I watched the webcast of both of them, and as expected, it was painful and discouraging.

While I applaud the intent of their efforts, and the people they recruit for these exercises are undoubtedly well qualified in their areas of specialty, they just don't know--most of them--very much about the transition and digital TV technology.

First, the low-income workshop. The meeting lasted about three hours including welcomes, Commissioner speeches, and breaks, etc. There were people there representing:

the Social Security Administration: she spoke about the other programs she's worked on and said she knew nothing about electronics (don't give people choices--they get confused--just give them what they need),

the National Association of Social Workers: she said the program should have started five years ago and needs more money; use radio for Hipanic audiences, put flyers on bulletin boards in local community grocery stores, and use police outreach,

the New York Public Utility Law Project: he knew something about the transition; said many low income people may not have internet access; talked about veterans and the elderly; said working poor more difficult to reach than welfare recipients,

the Harlem Consumer Education Council: he spoke about the elderly and medical shut-ins, about Indian tribes, and about the different ethnic groups in Harlem; put PSAs before movies in theaters--for people who don't watch TV; use community "linkages" and youth groups; get the cable company to install converter boxes for over-the-air viewers (!),

the Rural Coalition and Mississippi Action for Community Education: he deals with ranchers and farmers and said they won't react if you tell them there is a transition, but you can get their attention is you tell them the government is going to shut off your television service -- admitted this was a stretch; he said some converter boxes may not work, and what if they need a new antenna?,

the National Energy Assistance Directors Association: he said the problem with the converter box program is that people had to get their coupon and go out and buy a box; ideally someone would go door-to-door in low-income neighborhoods with a big carton of converter boxes and hook them up for people in need; he talked about his 85-year-old mother in a nursing home who has cable and ordered a coupon; others in the facility had over-the-air television service but didn't know about the program; he did not know that people in group homes could not get coupons, or that the manager for a facility could not simply order a bunch of boxes for the residents in need.

The FCC's Seidel told the group that other workshops had been held for the problems of seniors, rurals, minorities, etc.

Friday's Consumer Advisory Committee was meeting for the third time since being constituted (this particular crowd). They were primarily tasked with providing advice for DTV transition consumer education. They met first on August 10, 2007, and then November 2; there have also been smaller working group meetings.

There are 28 members on the committee. I didn't count, but it seemed that there were closer to half that number at Friday's meeting. There was some warm discussion from some of those attending about the level of FCC responsiveness to the committee's recommendations, even to the point of not acknowledging the recommendations. In short, those members were not feeling appreciated, notwithstanding the cheerleading speeches from the Commissioners proclaiming the importance of the committee's work.

That said, some of the committee members had clearly not done their homework educating themselves about the transition. This might be excused for a first meeting, but that was last August.

There were a room-full of chairs for an audience. All were empty save for a couple filled it seemed by FCC staffers. By contrast, the August meeting had a nicely filled-out peanut gallery.

So, good work they're doing?

One member was obsessed (that's the only way to put it) with where closed captions were placed on the screen. It's undoubtedly a valid concern, but hearing it twenty times over the course of five hours will not make it get better. Her hearing-impaired daughter was upset that closed captions were covering the faces (make-up) and hair on Gossip Girl, and apparently interfering with the picture on American Idol, and also covering the legs on Dancing with the Stars.

There was some explanation by others that mandated crawls giving notice about the transition would be placed on the bottom of the screen (and there are other things on the bottom), so closed captions were moved to the top. The woman said her daughter didn't care about the transition, only her shows. She wanted the bottom third of the screen reserved for closed captions.

The same woman also suggested several times that in addition to the other at-risk groups targeted for DTV education assistance (seniors, minorities, rurals, non-English speakers, etc.), "single moms with kids" be added. This because she had no idea how to hook up her TV, or her kid's Wii or X-Box. She called all her friends' husbands, but they begged off. Single moms needed help, she said--"Who is supposed to help you?" Single moms "didn't have anyone to rely on." At one point she said she didn't want to be sexist, but . . .

Duh. Sorry, but I'm a feminist. Well, not really sorry.

Anyway, there were other things.

When told there were now 67 converter boxes certified by the NTIA, most of the members thought that meant there were 67 different models in the stores for consumers to choose among. They were adamant in having someone (they decided on Consumers Union) test all the boxes and publish a features guide to help consumers with their choice -- especially on closed captioning performance.

Someone finally told them that only a few boxes are widely available for purchase now. The three boxes - the two LG clones and the Magnavox box. Then someone noted that Consumer Reports had published test results for those three boxes (available to everyone, not just subscribers). Of course those committee members had not bothered to look to see if any boxes had been reviewed nor bothered to check to see what boxes the major chains were selling.

Some members suggested that many boxes were defective because the digital picture was freezing. The chief of the FCC's Engineering and Technology Office showed up and presented a tutorial on digital reception (mentioned above), adding that many stations are not yet up to full digital signal strength (until after the end of the transition).

Others were confused about using a converter box if you have cable service, etc.

And so it went, more like all of that.

Most of these members undoubtedly are typical of American consumers. Looks like a train wreck ahead.

Until next week . . .

The Senate DTV hearing is on Tuesday. It now looks like FCC Chairman Martin and lame-duck NTIA-head Baker will be the only witnesses. Therefore, I expect not much new will emerge, as those two political animals are always circumspect in their testimony.

The FCC's monthly open meeting is on Thursday; the Commissioners will consider penalties and fines against retailers and manufacturers violating digital TV labeling and other requirements.