"ATSC has compelling technical and economic advantages and... those are the proper bases for decisions"

Friday, June 12, 2009

To date, Brazil has adapted the ISDB-T system to create its own digital TV standard, SBTVD, and convinced Peru to do the same. Uruguay, Colombia and most recently Panama selected European standard DVB, while Mexico and Honduras opted for US standard ATSC. However, many countries in Latin America have still not chosen a digital TV standard and lobbyists from ISDB, DVB and ATSC are actively promoting their respective cases.

Colombia and - recently - Panama selected European standard DVB, while Mexico, Honduras and - recently - El Salvador opted for ATSC.

Venezuela seems likely to opt for China's digital TV standard, though more for political than technical reasons.

The chairman of the ATSC Forum, Robert Graves, recently spoke to BNamericas to dispel some of what he said were the myths surrounding ATSC that have been propagated by competing standards, and to fight the corner for the technology.

BNamericas: What is the current status of the ATSC standard in Latin America?

Graves: The ATSC standard was first adopted in the US in 1996, officially by the FCC. We're two weeks away from the end of analog transmissions, the first major country to finish analog transmission.

Canada adopted the ATSC standard, where it reaches the vast majority of the Canadian population. Mexico adopted the standard in 2004 and the last report I saw was they had 37 stations on the air reaching 37% of the TV households in the country.

Honduras adopted the standard in 2007 and the last report I saw was there were three stations on the air in two cities. Just last month [in April] El Salvador adopted the ATSC standard. The standard is fully deployed in South Korea, 154 stations on the air. There are 1,800 stations on air in the US.

Argentina adopted ATSC in 1998 but had their financial crisis and the government changed several times and they're now reevaluating the whole situation.

We're very active in Argentina, Chile, in Ecuador, in the Dominican Republic and the remaining countries in Central America that are getting ready to make a decision. There are HDTV stations on the air in Costa Rica and Guatemala, but those countries have not formally adopted the ATSC standard. But we hope that all of the Central American countries with the exception of Panama [which chose DVB] will choose the ATSC standard, including the Dominican Republic, which is part of the same free trade bloc [CAFTA].

In Venezuela, the rumors are that they are considering choosing the Chinese standard. I went to Venezuela a couple of times but we have not spent a lot of resources there because we felt that Hugo Chávez would not choose the same standard used by the US no matter what the technical advantages.

BNamericas: So what advantages do you argue that ATSC has over the other standards?

Graves: We believe that ATSC has compelling technical and economic advantages and think those are the proper bases on which countries should make their decisions. On the economic advantages, we believe we offer the lowest priced receivers in the world. My favorite example is a 19", widescreen, flat panel, LCD integrated ATSC, HDTV receiver with a built-in DVD player that sold in November 2007, opening the Christmas shopping season, for US$199. That's less than the price of a set-top box for the standards in either Japan or Brazil, with no display at all. It's less than an SDTV of comparable size in Europe, which cannot handle an HDTV signal.

The bulk of the receivers that have been sold in Europe do not do what we call all-format decoding. They're SDTV only.

They did this to save money, which we think was a terribly short-sighted decision. There is nothing wrong with their standard, it's just the way they implemented it. They put inexpensive receivers on the market that go black if you present them with an HDTV signal.

They're talking in Europe about how to spend the digital dividend, and what they mean is when they turn off analog TV, they want to have a second digital transition so they can introduce HDTV. They're having the debate we had in 1987 in the US.

That US$199 receiver is less than an analog color TV in virtually every country in Latin America in that size. The Europeans argue that the ATSC standard was developed for a rich country. That is nonsense. For poor people in the US and more so in Latin America, free TV is their only form of entertainment.

I say the Europeans are causing their people to pay more for an antiquated technology than we pay for HDTV. It's a travesty.

BNamericas: What about Brazil?

Graves: Brazil chose the Japanese standard with MPEC4 decoding. They talked about how important it was to have a low-cost set top box. The first one that came out cost more than US$600, just for the set top box convertor. They have some cheaper ones now in the US$300 range.

We have more than 190 models of the so-called coupon eligible convertors that were used to help pave the way for the end of analog transmission. Those cost US$40-60. We've sold 29mn of those. They're designed for use with analog TVs. We have the lowest prices in the world both for integrated HDTV receivers and for integrated set top boxes that can be used with analog TVs.

BNamericas: What exactly was the coupon for?

Graves: It was a program funded by the US government whereby each household in the US could get up to two coupons worth US$40 each. They didn't apply to people wanting to use HDTV, just the people who wanted to continue using their analog TVs.

From 2005-07 it was phased in that all new receivers sold must have ATSC built in.

BNamericas: A lobbyist from one of the other standards told BNamericas recently that the ATSC standard is outdated and not optimum for interactive television.

Graves: That is ridiculous. ATSC has a full suite of standards for data communications and interactive services. Indeed, our standards for interactive standards are very similar to the European standard, nearly identical.

The interactive services [for the ATSC standard] have been developed mainly in South Korea, which is a worldwide leader in interactive TV.

BNamericas: Another frequently mentioned criticism of ATSC is its aptness for mobile TV.

Graves: That is a detailed and complicated area. The bottom line is that what broadcasters really want is a standard where if they have a single channel, in the case of the Americas, a 6MHz channel, they want to be able to use some of that bit rate to send services to mobile devices.

The Japanese standard currently does that better than the European standard. The Japanese standard was copied after the European standard but they made a few improvements.

The European standard, while it's technically possible to do mobility, is very inefficient. There are very few examples of mobile and fixed reception in the same channel. The Europeans often say pick DVB-T, our terrestrial fixed standard because it does mobile. But when they actually do mobile, they do DVB-H in separate channels. And those implementations have not been very successful.

What broadcasters really want, the Japanese standard comes closer to doing, and has been very successful in doing. In Korea they use the ATSC standard for fixed reception and have a separate standard for mobile, which has been very successful.

What we've done with ATSC, we've been working for several years developing mobile and handheld capability in the same 6MHz channel. That service has been developed and successfully tested. There are market trials and further R&D being launched now. There's a group of broadcasters called the open mobile video coalition, which represents 800 stations in the US, or half of the total. They have announced plans that 70 commercial stations will be on the air by the end of this year with ATSC mobile digital TV. If that happens as promised we'll have more mobile stations on the air than all of Europe.

About Robert Graves

Robert Graves has served as chairman of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) since its formation in 2002.

Graves has been heavily involved since 1991 in efforts to establish an international standard for digital television transmission, resulting in the adoption of the ATSC DTV Standard by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1996.

A 22-year veteran of AT&T, Graves served as government affairs VP-technology and infrastructure for eight years prior to forming his own consulting firm in 1995.

About the company

The ATSC Forum is a group of approximately 200 international corporations, associations and research and educational institutions developing the ATSC standard.

The ATSC Forum works to educate governments, broadcasters, manufacturers and others around the world regarding the benefits of digital television and the ATSC family of DTV standards.

ATSC has been adopted in the US, Canada, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and South Korea.