Fun_People Archive
15 Jan
IP Digital Television

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Wed, 15 Jan 97 15:00:51 -0800
To: Fun_People
Subject: IP Digital Television

Forwarded-by: Keith Bostic <>
Forwarded-by: "Gregory S. Halbrook" <>
Forwarded-by: Dave Farber <>
From: Charles Platt <>

It's good to see some plain and accurate statements about digital
television. I spent three months, on and off, researching this subject for
an article which will be in the next issue of Wired. It is an incredible
scandal, all the more so because journalists still aren't writing about it
(except in high-cost, low-circulation trade newsletters).  Today's USA TODAY
has a typically uncritical, uninformed piece about the digital-TV future.
It reads like, and probably is, a rewritten FCC press release.

The central problem is that we have a government commission that possesses
the power to set standards, but has lost the will to do so.  In the words
of one mild-mannered college historian I heard from, who specializes in
media studies, FCC commissioners "are spineless weasels more under the thumb
of industry than at any time in history." (This quote may not be absolutely
precise, I'm reiterating it from memory, but the key words are correct.)
Speaking for the government, in the words of one source at the FCC who
lectured me for an hour, trying to put his spin on my story, "It is a sign
of great leadership when a leader chooses not to use his power."

Right. Now imagine what FM radio would be like if the FCC had chosen not to
use its power to establish a standard.

TV broadcasters have never seen any advantage in moving to a high-definition
format, because it won't earn any extra advertising revenue. At the same
time, since there is a limited number of usable TV channels, and since you
have to have a license to be a broadcaster, we have a cartel that is closed
to newcomers. Therefore, there is no risk of someone upgrading picture
quality in order to maintain market share in the face of upstart competitors
(as IBM did when it introduced VGA graphics).  The only way most
broadcasters would have switched to high-definition format was if they were
forced by law to do so. Naturally they did all they could to defeat such a
move -- successfully.

When the possibilities of digital compression were understood, however,
broadcasters certainly saw the worth of THIS. Using MPEG-2, probably at
least 5 digitized, compressed signals can be squashed into the same
bandwidth as one analog-style NTSC transmission. Note that when these
digitized signals are decompressed, they are still 525-line pictures in the
same old NTSC format. Did the FCC suggest that maybe broadcasters should
not be allowed to transit five channels using the bandwidth that was
originally allocated for just one? Did the FCC restrict broadcasters from
charging subscriptions for the new channels, or ancillary data transmission
services (such as software downloads)? Did the FCC remind broadcasters that
the whole point of digital compression, originally, was that one
high-definition channel could be squashed into the same bandwidth as one
old analog NTSC channel? Of course not!

To add insult to injury, the broadcasters have successfully insisted on the
freedom to continue transmitting interlaced pictures (i.e. all the odd lines
in the first 1/60th of a second, then all the even lines in the next 1/60th
of a second) because, again, this saves bandwidth and allows more elbow room
for them to sell extra channels or pay-services in spectrum that they
originally received FREE OF CHARGE so that they could transmit television
as a public service. (Pause for laughter.)

Ultimately one may hope that the net will become a substitute for the
airwaves, and will allow genuine competition from newcomers. Reed Hundt,
FCC chairman, constantly talks about "the marketplace" as if the
broadcasting cartel is somehow a model of free capitalism; but of course it
is a government-protected club, and we can easily imagine how its members
will react when they see REAL competitors springing up online. I assume we
can expect the full lobbying power of the broadcasting industry to be
brought to bear, insisting on various regulatory measures that will restrict
competition online.

Anyway, all of this and more is in my article in the next Wired. I don't
normally promote my own stuff, but in this particular case, for reasons that
are not clear to me, I seem to be the only writer who is spelling out this
odious history of greed and protectionism. Consequently (as far as I know)
you can't really read about it anyplace else. I regret this, because the
viewing public should be aware that they are the victims of a most
outrageous hoax: the claim that digital television will somehow be wonderful
and beneficial and entirely in the interests of the consumer.

--Charles Platt

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