Digital box to the rescue

Today's digital transition is getting nowhere

The problem, as this editor sees it, is in continuing to concentrate on the TV set as the hub of the digital universe. What the industry needs is a universal digital interface (a digital box) to bring all media together on a level playing field and to re-enfranchise the hundreds of millions of analog sets destined for obsolescence if digital is ever to work.

Until Woo Paik came up with the scheme for high-bit-rate digital compression, all the world was analog. Now, more than a decade later, most of the world is still analog. Something's wrong with this picture.

It began at the beginning. When the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service was charged with developing the standard for digital and high-definition television, its primary mission was to create a transmission system for over-the-air broadcasting. (Actually, its original mission was to enable high-definition TV, but no one wants to talk about that.) Cable chose to distance itself from the process, and satellite, in its infancy, was in no position to play.

As a result, the committee, led by former FCC Chairman Richard E. Wiley, was thwarted in achieving an end-to-end solution to ensure that the digital and HDTV signals from broadcast, cable and satellite would converge before or at their ultimate destination: a consumer's television display. Almost five years after the broadcast standard was unleashed on the world, they have yet to meet.

Instead, hundreds and perhaps thousands of companies and individuals are pursuing different paths to different goals, admitting all the while that they have no certain vision of where or what the ultimate destination will be. It's the shotgun approach or like betting all the numbers at roulette.

But what is needed is an approach that anticipates, instead, a convergence. The formula that will most likely result in an ideal solution concentrates resources and energy.

(It should be noted that the one thing that has succeeded in the digital transition is broadcast coverage. There are now 185 DTV stations on the air, providing at least one DTV signal to 67.42% of TV households. Whether the FCC will actually insist that the other 1,400 stations build out digital by 2002, in the face of a virtually DTV-free environment, is problematic. But 1,372 applications have been processed, and 606 others are pending. Not since Custer's Last Stand have so many been sent into the unknown against such overwhelming odds.)

How far have we come in establishing a digital foothold? At last count, fewer than a million sets had been sold, only a handful with tuners that would make them more than monitors for DVD. In the meantime, some 33 million new analog sets were sold in the past year alone, to join an existing population of more than 250 million. Talk about a digital divide!

What this tells us is that analog remains the name of the game and will be as long as we treat these technologies as separate entities. Cable, on the other hand, has fashioned a pragmatic approach to the dilemma: equal parts analog and digital but destined only for analog sets. Slowly but perhaps surely (there may be as many as 8 million so-called digital cable boxes installed today), its proprietary brand of analog/digital is penetrating the American marketplace.

In sum, the transition to a digital-ready system, capable of HDTV and other advanced television, is a non-starter. It hasn't happened, and it isn't likely to within an acceptable time frame. This is no time to stay a course to nowhere.

There is an alternative, and it has three essential elements:

  • Development of a universal digital box to accept all digital signals in the home and reroute them, by wire line and/or wireless, to the virtually infinite number of digital displays and appliances that will come to populate the networked home of the 21st century. The individual television set that was the driver of our electronic media system in the past century should no longer be asked to be all things to all media in a multichannel future. That's a job for the digital box.
  • The digital signal must be tied into the analog universe. The hundreds of millions of analog sets already in place (most of them good to go for a decade or more) must remain enabled in digital. Analog sets currently in consumers' homes need to be able to receive DTV signals. This would be similar to the ubiquitous reception capability that made possible the introduction of UHF and the transition from black-and-white to color. Talk about not leaving one child behind; we can't afford to leave several generations of analog behind on the way to digital.
  • The digital transition, as does the digital box, should anticipate the inclusion of computer and Internet capabilities as basic to the convergence. The fact is that computers got there first in digital (indeed, without a computer, there could be no digital box). Convergence of TV and PC functionality is not only inevitable but in everyone's best interest. Happily, the ATSC DTV standard issued by the Wiley committee already makes provision for compatibility with that sector of the electronic universe.

I have written before (in "Millennavision," B&C, Jan. 3, 2000) that all electronic communications would enter the home through a digital box. But, while acknowledging that end, I failed at the time to recognize its full implication. It has taken some months, and the deterioration of the present DTV scheme of things, for the concept to come fully into focus.

The box itself would most closely resemble a computer's central processing unit (CPU) or a server. It could be situated at the home's media center or located out of sight in a closet or basement or attic. Into the box would come all video, audio and data transmissions, whether broadcast over the air or via cable, satellite, Internet, telco, electric utility or even wireless spectrum transmissions for 2.5- or 3.0-generation mobile devices.

Additionally, the box might house the technology for video, audio and data navigation, storage, retrieval and replay. No wheel need be reinvented; a prototype version might well be assembled using off-the-shelf technology existing today.

Display devices would be peripheral to the digital box, including TV sets, PC monitors, handheld appliances and more. Ideally and eventually, interconnection within the home, anticipating a profusion of displays from the miniature to the massive, would be by wireless, but that connection need not be exclusive. Wire line might prove a better way to start in certain high-capacity and two-way applications and facilitate copy protection and business management. The wireless segments could use unlicensed spectrum, a prospect gaining increasing plausibility as numerous companies make significant strides in that direction.

It would be a marriage of three wonders: television (now in its eighth decade), the computer (now in its umpteenth) and wireless (still in its first). Their total would prove far greater than the sum of their parts.

Of greatest importance to the digital transition would be inclusion within the box of a digital-to-analog converter that would enable any existing analog receiver to display all digital transmissions with resolution on par with direct satellite and digital cable and markedly superior to existing NTSC. The reach of digital programming would, in short order, attain critical mass. All transmissions could henceforth be digital, and (Congress, take note) the analog spectrum could be returned within a reasonable time frame.

While this proposal does not emphasize the impact on must-carry, the digital box may promise a solution to that dilemma, as well. At optimum, every medium would have equal access to the set, with none being gatekeeper to the others.

The digital-box approach should not be made to sound either too revolutionary or too easy. The idea of a "digital furnace" or a "residential gateway" to digital functions in the home has intrigued engineers for years.

Among the sticking points:

  • How much will it cost?
  • Who will pay for it?
  • How do you market a device that in and of itself displays no pictures and plays no music?
  • How much bandwidth will be needed to handle simultaneous digital signals in multiple locations, wirelessly?
  • Will the free-market modulation standards for broadcast, cable and satellite defeat a digital box as they have, so far, defeated an interoperable set? Or, instead, can the box resolve modulation debates and make transmission schemes transparent to the consumer?
  • How do you provide an upgrade path, so as not to halt innovation?
  • How do you get competing media to cooperate in a system that raises all boats equally?

Those are among a number of questions raised by the industry experts among whom the digital box approach has been circulated.

The good news is that virtually all believe that it would be a good idea to actually implement, and none think it's technologically out of reach. The larger problem, as most see it, is that so many disparate interests are out to capture the television set for their own ends.

Thus the current concentration upon reception at each individual set via a profusion of proprietary devices.

In the short as well as the long run, this approach appears less desirable, less flexible and more expensive than development of a universal digital device with its promise of jump-starting the entire DTV medium, uncomplicating the lives of consumers and enlarging digital's horizons by several orders of magnitude.

The political vision is less clear than the technological. In my view, the FCC has yet to correct its regulatory shortfall in failing to provide an end-to-end solution to the digital transition the first time around. It clearly was not enough simply to set an over-the-air transmission standard, leaving all other media free to pursue independent transmission schemes and with no requirements on the consumer electronics or computer industries for creation of an interoperable device.

Having different gauges of track for converging visual media is a questionable way to run this railroad.

Policy direction by the federal government could accelerate the digital transition by a technological lifetime. Regrettably, the digital transition has few friends in high places these days.

In the preface to the first draft of this proposal, I wrote: "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."

Today's digital transition is plagued by too many people going too many ways at once, none guided by a common vision, much less a common standard.

The purpose of this proposal is to hasten the inevitable, giving focus to a process already ongoing and to technologies already in place. It also would give confidence and value to the American consumer, upon whom all depends.

It proceeds from the belief that, left alone, the marketplace will eventually reach this same conclusion. But if eventually is to be a very long time, why not now?