FCC tech chief takes stock

Departing head of engineering and technology says he's still optimistic about DTV, argues that 8-VSB does what it was meant to do-deliver television to the home

Three years after being hired by Chairman William Kennard, Dale Hatfield last week left his post as chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology. Somewhat weary of Washington, Hatfield is returning to his hometown of Boulder, Colo., to head the University of Colorado's interdisciplinary graduate program in telecommunications. FCC engineers were busy during Hatfield's watch, working doggedly, if not always successfully, to speed the digital TV transition, to create a low-power FM service and to make the spectrum more flexible. Hatfield shared some parting words with BROADCASTING
CABLE Assistant Editor Bill McConnell. An edited transcript follows.

As your tenure ends, the future of the digital TV transition is still very uncertain because of a variety of inter-industry conflicts. What do you make of the DTV mess?

I'm disappointed we're not further along. One thing I've gained in the last three years is an appreciation for the complexity of the digital transition. It's difficult because the industry is split into different parts and those parts have to cooperate to get the whole thing to work. But all have different incentives and different paces of wanting to do things.

There's no sign that cable, Hollywood and broadcasters will resolve the cable-compatibility and copy-protection issues soon. What can break the logjam so that consumers can have DTV sets worth buying-meaning ones that are cable-ready?

That's more the bailiwick of the lawyers. Giving them their due, the issue of how much protection you should give against unauthorized copying is value judgments. We engineers can talk about the technology necessary to give certain levels of protection, but, ultimately, how much society chooses is for private negotiations or the market. I would think with a new administration-no matter who it is-that's one of the fundamental issues: How activist a government you want in these areas.

The debate over the digital-modulation standard continues unabated, even as the FCC and industry groups wrap up field tests. Is there reason for the FCC to undo its commitment to 8-VSB, particularly to aid indoor reception and foster development of mobile services?

I've not seen any evidence yet that calls into question the basic decision made in favor of 8-VSB. If you want the network to do something different than it was originally intended [video delivery, particularly high-definition] there will be tradeoffs. But for it's original purpose, I'm very comfortable with the selection.

DTV was designed almost exclusively to provide HDTV. Now, many station owners say that might not be the right way to go. Shouldn't the FCC make sure the system can accommodate additional services, such as datacasting?

Broadcasters need to take advantage of their architecture. The clear message to me is they need to be broadcasters first. Additional services need to complement or extend the basic television experience. My optimism is first based on being able to do digital television, particularly HDTV. The Internet is wonderful at delivering one-to-one type stuff. Broadcast is really optimized for one to many, and what is needed is a smooth integration between the two.

In a controversial decision, the FCC has paved the way for a new competitor to cable by allowing a terrestrial multichannel service in the satellite TV band. How confident are you this won't cause serious interference for direct-broadcast satellite customers?

This is where having internal engineers capable of understanding and doing analysis is absolutely critical. I was proud of the job our engineers did. It was extremely complex and illustrates the stuff we have to do as spectrum is getting more and more valuable. We have to beef up our analytical techniques so we can safely allow sharing of the spectrum.

The creation of the terrestrial service and the approval of low-power radio have created a lot of political heat for the FCC. Has opposition from lawmakers colored your technical recommendations about these new services?

You just can't let that happen. That's for other people, the politically appointed people, to handle. I've always regarded my responsibility to do the engineering analysis as straight as I possibly can and as honestly as can be. I've felt very comfortable with my decisions in that respect. That sort of pressure is just part of the job. The question is what you do with that pressure and how you maintain your objectivity. But the town here is not as friendly as it once was. It's a little more vicious than it was 25 years ago. It makes your job a lot less pleasant.

Will DTV ever be a success?

Believe it or not, I am still optimistic. I really believe digital television and, particularly, high definition is a quantitatively different product. As people see more and more, it will gain in popularity. I am absolutely convinced that it's a matter of timing and when we get there.