Last week, the FCC issued a letter denying a petition filed originally by the Sinclair Broadcast Group and backed by signatures from owners representing more than 300 other television stations that requested the FCC grant permission to send out digital TV (DTV) signals using a technology in widespread use in Europe.
The Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 58 TV stations reaching about 24 percent of U.S. homes with televisions, had asked the commission to allow the broadcast of DTV signals with the different method because its tests showed that DTV sets weren't up to the task in terms of displaying pictures under less than ideal conditions.
Basically, with an analog television receiving over-the-air signals, a bad signal just means the picture gets fuzzy, or one might see a double image. With DTV sets, reception problems mean there isn't enough data being fed to the set to turn into a picture, so the screen just goes blank until the signal comes back.
But the FCC said in its reply that the creation of an additional DTV signal transmission standard would take years and "could result in compatibility problems that could cause consumers to postpone purchasing DTV equipment" and lead to "significant" delays in the offering of DTV programming and services.
What Sinclair showed, the FCC said, was that early DTV receivers had shortcomings, but that manufacturers were moving to address those issues. In any case, the benefit of changing to a new standard didn't outweigh the drawbacks, the agency said.
"We're just happy to see some resolution," said a spokesman for Sony. "This will help us move forward with manufacturing and engineering plans," he said.
James Farrell, marketing manager with Motorola's semiconductor business, said Motorola's position was that reception issues would be improved with new technology coming to market, and he thinks that the FCC's decision reflects that thinking. Farrell said that Motorola will be shipping its third-generation chips for DTV sets that offer improved reception in volume within the next few months.
"We have waited since the standard was adopted in 1996 for products that work," David Smith, president of Sinclair, said in a statement. "To date, not one receiver or chip manufacturer has demonstrated the technical capability to provide our industry with a product that even begins to approximate what we have in the analog world today."
The contentious issue may not be permanently laid to rest with the decision either. The FCC said that it "recognized the importance of the issues raised" and would seek further comment on the issue during its biennial review of the progress in DTV rollout.
Sinclair took the commission's decision to stay open to review as a victory of sorts. Smith suggested that the FCC limit the amount of time given to receiver and chip manufacturers to demonstrate improvements in reception. Sinclair noted that an organization called Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) has issued a call for standards for DTV receivers, saying performance to date had been inadequate. The association is made up of representatives of big broadcasters like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox.