Digital Picture Clears Up As NAB Supports 8-VSB

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After a spate of studies and tests, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) reaffirmed their endorsement of the Federal Communications Commission-approved 8-VSB (vestigal sideband) modulation standard for digital-television reception.

The NAB-MSTV board of directors' joint resolution also said there "is insufficient evidence" to add COFDM (coded orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing) to the standards mix. COFDM, considered a more global standard by some industry observers, is popular in Europe and Asia.

"We needed to get behind one single standard, and that's what we've accomplished here," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

"The important thing, from our perspective, was being able to unify the industry, because we recognize there are bigger battles to come on this in terms of getting other parties to do their part," he added, noting a push by broadcasters to impose digital must-carry conditions on the cable industry.

While NAB claimed unity on the decision to exclude COFDM, not all broadcasters were thrilled.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is not an NAB member, has been the most vocal among a group of U.S. TV station owners that support a dual-standard coated with COFDM elements. That faction argues that COFDM offers better indoor reception and is better suited to push data alongside a digital-video signal.

But other broadcasters favor 8-VSB because they have already spent millions on equipment based on that standard and are fearful that COFDM could spawn interference problems.

"Certainly, we're disappointed that the NAB and MSTV have placed exclusive reliance on a system that currently does not support broadcasters' requirements," Sinclair vice president of corporate relations Mark Hyman said.

Hyman noted a December 2000 VSB Technical Group report which concluded that 8-VSB requires improvements in its reception performance. Unless the pace of improvement for the standard is accelerated, consumers might not see 8-VSB enhancements before late 2003, the study said.

Regardless, Wharton said, Sinclair "did not make the case for adding on CODFM as an option." He claimed a move in that direction "did not present a credible reason for delaying the rollout of digital television."

Hyman countered that "delaying" the digital transition was never part of Sinclair's lexicon when it aired concerns over 8-VSB.

He said Sinclair has been "rigorous" in hopes of executing a future CODFM conversion. Three of Sinclair's four stations in the top 30 markets currently broadcast at least one digital signal. That figure should rise to 19 by the end of 2001.

Sinclair has 62 stations under its umbrella.

In their resolution, the NAB and MSTV acknowledged there "is an urgent need for swift and dramatic improvement in the performance of the present U.S. digital-television system."

Wharton said VSB improvements will focus on reception capabilities.

"Some of the sets that are using the transmission standard did not perform as well as we would like with indoor reception," he said.

Zenith Electronics Corp., which introduced a line of digital and high-definition televisions at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, applauded the resolution.

Zenith, sold in 1999 to South Korea-based LG Electronics Inc., owns the VSB patents and will collect royalties on their use, company spokesman John Taylor said.

While the digital-modulation scheme for DTV reception appears to be getting settled, other issues must be cleared up before broadcasters can complete an analog-to-digital transition.

The FCC has mandated that all commercial broadcasters must air a DTV signal no later than May 1, 2002. Non-commercial broadcasters must follow suit by May 1, 2003.

Today, 173 stations that cover 67 percent of the U.S. offer at least one digital signal, which means that broadcasters are ahead of schedule, Wharton said.

Broadcasters in smaller markets could run into a cash crunch when they run through the numbers for a digital conversion, Hyman said. Small-market stations could suffer financially, he said, because their digital-equipment costs are basically the same as those of their larger and deeper-pocketed major-market cousins.

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