Digital Algorithm Developer Seeks Allies Amid Skeptics

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In a perfect world, a new digital television algorithm developed by a Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist would be embraced by the government, broadcasters, consumer-electronics manufacturers and the cable industry.

Unfortunately, for George Nickel-an industry outsider on all accounts-most of these groups thus far have ignored him and his ideas because, alas, the world is and likely will continue to be full of imperfections.

Beyond that, the idea Nickel is bringing to the digital table is considered far-fetched, impractical and, for all intents and purposes, much too late to make a difference anyway, according to a growing mass of critics.

Nickel's idea is simple, even if the challenges it faces are not. Nickel claims his compression technology, dubbed LANL, can combine analog and digital television signals on the same 6-megahertz channel. That has the potential to squelch the digital must-carry argument presented by cable operators because, if Nickel is correct, a broadcaster need not simulcast two signals on two separate channels.

Of course, that pointed debate was blunted to a degree last week, when some top Federal Communications Commission officials said the agency needs more data and time to mull over the issue before it decides whether to authorize dual-carriage requirements on MSOs. The FCC already has mandated that all commercial broadcasters must broadcast a DTV signal no later than May 1, 2002.

Nonetheless, the potential of Nickel's algorithm, for which he is currently seeking a patent, has sparked a touch of excitement among some cable engineers. Those technicians envision the possibility that they-along with LMDS (local multipoint distribution service) providers-could be required to carry both analog and digital broadcast signals during the transition period.

That scenario, MSOs have argued, could force them to drop cable networks in order to make room in the very real world of limited bandwidth.

"If it can be done-and that's a big if-it would diffuse some of cable's argument on carrying two signals," said The Yankee Group senior analyst Michael Goodman.

Will it actually work?

Nickel said it does, at least in a lab setting. "I haven't radiated any signals yet, I'll admit that. I've simulated everything with digital computers," he said.

And even through his own testing, Nickel candidly pointed out that there are some technical wrinkles associated with his algorithm that remain in need of ironing.

For example, instead of the black bands typically found above and below a letterbox image on a television screen, bands of snow have cropped up. Nickel believes he can solve that irritant with some cheap electronics.

Nickel said he's reluctant to throw that bandwidth away, especially if broadcasters want to use it for enhanced applications like datacasting.

Additionally, if high-definition television is sent over the channel, the resolution rendered on the viewing screen is a cut below true HDTV.

"We've modeled dedicated HDTV pictures and, with this conversion, it's kind of hard to tell the difference unless you compare them side-by-side," Nickel said.

Beyond his internal testing, Nickel is trying to license his technology to a broadcaster or a TV manufacturer. With their in-house research-and-development branch and engineering know-how, Nickel figures that live demonstrations eventually would follow.

So far, however, Nickel has yet to find support from any individual or organization with enough clout to really make a difference, making him an outsider without backing for his technology. At the same time, Nickel is learning about the industry and its political undertones on the fly.

Nickel said he initially presented his idea to the FCC about eight months ago.

"They said it sounded interesting, but they didn't believe I could get it implemented unless I had an ally in the industry. They suggested that I meet with the broadcasters," Nickel said.

So Nickel entered a beehive that, when stirred, can unleash a vicious sting. Nickel admitted that he left some of those meetings with his bubble burst.

"My psyche's been bruised a bit," he admitted, when discussing the initial criticism he's encountered.

Nickel said his first meetings were with the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) and the Advanced Television Systems Committee. His overtures with the ConsumerElectronics Association, meanwhile, were met with hostility, "because they don't want any more delays in the digital transition," Nickel said.

It also hadn't occurred to him until recently that he could also seek feedback from such organizations as the National Association of Broadcasters or the National Cable Television Association-a point that underscores Nickel's continuing education about the ways of the television industry and its political makeup.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton confirmed Nickel has yet to approach the organization in any official capacity, and could not comment specifically about the technology. Ditto for NCTA.

Though some industry observers see the potential in Nickel's technology, most appear at this point to be writing it off as all hype and little substance.

As Nickel has quickly discovered, when politics and science come to a head, the results can explode like a meeting between matter and antimatter.

Still, Nickel knows a bit about explosions-specifically, detonations served by the megaton. The seeds of Nickel's algorithm were planted when the U.S. still was allowed to conduct underground nuclear tests.

While working in such a hostile environment, Nickel said, he began to toy with ways to improve the testing facility's television reception.

Already intrigued by North America's NTSC (National Television Standards Committee) transmission format, the potential of digital television and HDTV began creeping into Nickel's consciousness, he recalled.

"I thought these two could go together," he said. That thought was a springboard to what Nickel is proposing today.

Even if the algorithm does work, Nickel readily acknowledges he'll have a tough time convincing the digital decision-makers.

But that decision has already been made, to a large degree. Earlier this year, the NAB and MSTV reaffirmed their endorsement of the FCC-approved 8-VSB (vestigial sideband) modulation scheme for DTV reception, eschewing a groundswell of support for COFDM (coded orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing). The latter is considered a more globally accepted and technically proven standard, according to some broadcasters, including Sinclair Broadcast Group. Though tests have confirmed that the current iteration of 8-VSB is riddled with faults, adding more standardized elements to the modulation equation could lengthen the delay of the digital transition.

"[Nickel's] technology might have had a better chance two to three years ago when the argument on the standard was being made," Goodman said. "The FCC, NAB and broadcast affiliates don't have the stomach for [more standards]. He's got a lot of work ahead of him, but it's still a long shot."

Nickel, meanwhile, is quick to point out that his technology only is an interim solution until digital reigns supreme. He claimed that changes to his scheme could be made at a later point, via a software upgrade.

Though he has seemingly hit a brick wall at every turn, Nickel has found at least one glimmer of hope. He said a small, regional MSO has asked for the paperwork behind the algorithm as part of a nondisclosure agreement.

Only time will tell if a small cable operator will prove

ally enough for Nickel as he wages a war it doesn't seem he can win.

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