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Mobile DTV Standards: To Tune or Not to Tune

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Just when we thought it was safe to surf our new digital televisions (DTVs), another, more subtle wave is washing over the shores of consumer electronics (CE). That wave is the new ATSC M/H mobile/handheld standard, dubbed A/153 by propellerheads. In the past, when analog TV still worked, you could purchase cheap, nasty little TVs the size of a paperback book. They had very low-res displays, barely functional tuners, and the worse sound imaginable. Did I mention they were cheap?

You may remember that last year all old school analog TV stations went off the air, to be replaced by their equivalent digital versions. These DTV channels are free, over the air broadcasts that require only a minimal investment to receive. I purchased one of the converter boxes that the gov’ment subsidized, and an indoor antenna for my problematic location in the sandy hills of western San Francisco. Now, with less than a $100 outlay, I get a huge number of local channels, for free! Whenever I visit relatives, I always wonder why they spend hilarious amounts of money on cable or satellite for 200 channels of home shopping and A-Team reruns. Heck, that’s what DVDs are for!

Anyway, back to those portable TVs…they’re dead. Not dead as in “won’t work,” it’s just they have nothing to display. As I mentioned earlier, with the exception of specialized LPTV or low power stations serving pocket–sized audiences, all analog television service in the US shut down the middle of last year. In Australia, it started this year and, in Canada, it’ll happen next year. Analog is expensive so, all around the world, analog TV is going the way of black and white, never to return.

If you’re one of those brave, or cheap, folks who, like me, have joined the great free TV bandwagon, you may have noticed that digital TV reception ain’t as easy to set up as analog. With old fashioned TV, you could pick up marginal stations, even though the picture may have been snowy or ghosted. That same station, in the shiny new digital version, is likely to be nonexistent, at least as far as your receiver is concerned. That’s because digital anything is a go/no go proposition. Either the bulk of the data arrives intact or you’re SOL. “Nada, zip, no can do,” sez Mr. DTV receiver. So, stations with insufficient signal strength, rather than being noisy but serviceable, simply will not decode at all. The result; no picture or sound.

To make matters worse, we Americans, with our hatred of all things Not Invented Here, adopted a DTV standard that has a very tough time with what’s called “multipath,” a situation where signals bouncing off building or planes interfere with signals arriving directly from the transmitter tower. This is a common problem in urban areas, where helicopters and high-rises make perfect mirrors for television signals. Our “advanced” DTV standard — advanced is right in the name — is so lame when it comes to handling that basic problem that it took the majority of the transition period, which started in 1996, for someone to develop a chip that could handle multipath reasonably well. Even so, the solution is just a Band-Aid, as anyone who’s watched their picture disintegrate as a plane flies low overhead will attest. On the other hand, the aforementioned Australians took a different route, a more robust one designed from the ground up to ignore multipath.

Think, for a moment, about a DTV receiver in motion. Say you’re in a car, or on a bus or train commuting home from work. Not only is there the ubiquitous multipath interference but it’s changing every second. So, unlike a fixed DTV receiver at home, a mobile or handheld receiver has to cope with a veritable barrage of ever changing multipath signals. That’s more than our DTV standard can handle. But, waiting in the wings is the new A/153 standard based on, you got it, basically the same technology the Aussies adopted. Now, why we didn’t start from a position of strength is a long sad tale of well-funded vested interests, their highly paid lobbyists, and jingoistic Senators and Congressmen. But, I digress. Suffice it to say we’ve got yet another new way of delivering content to your pocket or back seat, alongside the cellular and WiFi services already causing cancer hereabouts.

In case you didn’t know, there’s a war going on. It’s a war of phones and their manufacturers, network providers and content holders… and it’s in your pocket. Or rather, they want to get into your pocket. You see, with the rise of smart phones, everyone involved in consumer electronics, telephony, and advertising wants a piece of the lucrative chain that delivers advertising and digital “content,” all the stuff we used to crowd under the entertainment umbrella. Droid vs iOS, Verizon vs AT&T, Sprint vs both of them, WiMax vs 4G…blah, blah, blah. The whole scene is so crowded, so hyped that phone carriers and manufacturers are in a knock down, drag out fight to capture the attention and eventual purchasing dollars and advertising revenue of every cell phone user about these parts. Enter A/153, another way to add questionable features to an already busy smart phone.

Trouble was, what to do with LPTV, those tiny low power broadcasters serving a very local community? They’re exempt from the switch to digital and can still transmit a good, old fashioned analog TV signal. To a mobile/handheld manufacturer, that’s an expensive albatross. Expensive as in higher battery drain, expensive as in reduced sensitivity to those already fragile TV signals, and expensive too in parts count to build a product. Maybe that’s why you haven’t seen A/153–compliant products in your local store. There aren’t any. Actually, there aren’t many since manufacturers have been holding their collective breath, waiting to see what will be done about LPTV.

Well, late last month, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) waived the “burdensome obligation” that mobile digital television receivers include analog decoders. “We…conclude that a waiver is in the public interest because it would facilitate the introduction of television receivers with mobile DTV tuners that are designed to be used in motion,” the FCC order stated. “As a condition of the waiver, however, we require that responsible parties clearly disclose to consumers that a specific device does not have the capability to receive analog signals, and, where applicable, standard non-mobile digital signals.”

This ruling will open the floodgates for phone and computer manufacturers to include DTV features into future product, as long as the box says something about “no analog,” which will probably evolve into a Pure Digital logo or some such spin. Now that the shackles are off, it’ll be interesting to see what’s at the Winter CES, the big trade show next January in Vegas for all things consumer electronics. I, for one, would like to see DTV inside my phone, car, and laptop. Choice is good!

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About Oliver Masciarotte

A graduate of the Lowell Institute of MIT, Oliver A. Masciarotte has spent over 30 years immersed in entertainment tech, working with top companies & clients on marketing, production and product development…More at www.seneschal.net/about/
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